The Right Place to Write

The romantic notion of café culture, of places where writers and artists meet, where they can sit for hours over one cup of coffee lost in their writing, is one that holds a lot of attraction. But the reality is often rather different. I’ve loved some of the cafés I’ve visited in Paris, particularly a little tearoom on the Isle Saint-Louis, La Charlotte de L’Isle, which does wonderful hot chocolate and is friendly and unhurried, yet I’ve never written more than a few notes there. In Toledo, researching scenes for This is the End of the Story, we found a tiny bar that did superb coffee in the daytime and had lovely staff. We could sit comfortably with one coffee for a very long time, but the music whilst eclectic — ranging from funk to jazz — somehow wasn’t conducive to writing. Bruges was exquisitely beautiful, but the cafés seemed keen to keep customers moving at a brisk rate and Lisbon felt similar, and had the added complication of generally loud music with a heavy beat, though we passed through so quickly that perhaps there are many café gems we didn’t discover.

Last year in Prague, the dream café seemed closer to existing. The tiny ‘Bakeshop’ just off Mala Strana, near the wonderful Kafka Museum, did great breakfast pastries, coffee and chocolate, and was completely unhurried despite having only two tiny tables plus a little side counter with a couple of stools. And, on the riverfront, the Bella Vida Café was full of bookcases with old books, wonderfully mismatched old furniture, and a relaxed atmosphere that encouraged lingering with a book to read or something to write. If there was music, it wasn’t intrusive, but such a lovely place was popular and we couldn’t always find a seat.

So we came to Budapest thinking, again, how lovely it would be to have a place to write where we could also take in the local culture, rather than closeting ourselves away in an apartment, but also not expecting to find the place that by now had become an unrealistic idyll. And we were, happily, wrong.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALarge portions of A Remedy for All Things have been written at a local café, Póharszék. Within a couple of visits the lovely staff have started preparing our order as we walk in, a large bottle of water and two black coffees, that last us for hours before topping up. Occasionally, there’s a glass of wine in the early evening or a slice of quiche at lunchtime and the staff are slowly educating us in Hungarian wines to take home to go with dinner. There’s relatively quiet music inside, but the tables along the pavement have become ‘home’, where I can immerse myself for hours in the writing while Adam people-watches, makes notes and turns them into compelling stories of character and place.

We haven’t quite taken up residence at Póharszék. We’ve had trips to museums, to meet a Budapest publisher who helped fill in lots of details about life in the 50s and 90s, to an artists’ town along the river and we’ve walked and walked, or occasionally taken trams, all across the city. But most days we manage some time here and some days, great stretches of time. Other regulars nod and smile to us now; we know several local dogs and have had a fascinating conversation with an American screenwriter working in Budapest on a TV series with a Welsh actor. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We’ve even added another couple of writing venues to our itinerary — Csiga is a high-ceilinged, larger café in District VIII, a district with a reputation for being run-down and rough, but the edge of it is also attracting students and artists. Csiga is slow service, in the sense of being deliberately unhurried and laid back, an interesting place to gather characters and the gentle music is quiet enough not to interfere with the writing. Even better is Massolit Bookshop Café in District VII, the Jewish district. It’s cozy and quirky, full of English-language books and attracts lots of students, studying hard, fuelled by cookies, coffees and pastries. The music is kept very low and there’s no rush to leave. When we visited, one student was deep inside revision for an exam and another was working on watercolour sketches.

So it’s in Budapest — not Paris, the City of Lights, with its reputation for café culture, nor Prague, a fairy-tale full of architectural gems and the spirit of Kafka in it’s mythic streets — that we have found the most homely and welcoming cafés that are conducive not only to creativity, but to chance meetings and a world of observations. Very quickly after arriving in Budapest, I was struck by the sense of melancholy here and soon found that I wasn’t alone in feeling that. There’s not a great deal of effusiveness here, but there is graciousness and helpfulness and, as we visit particular places more than once, especially Póharszék, a sense that behind the reserve, the welcome is genuine and not merely a sales pitch.

Finding a place to work that is embedded in the culture of a few blocks with regular patrons has made us feel much more connected to this place for a few short weeks and connection is at the heart of any writing practice.

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At the Attila József Museum

Yesterday we took a tram to the south of the city to the IXth District. It’s the most run-down area we’ve visited and a shock after the picturesque tram-ride along the Danube. It was a blazing hot day and we were glad to find the museum after only ten minutes walking. The opening hours are long and articles I read about visitors in the days before it was refurbished and made more interactive and informative told me that it was well attended. Yet the door was locked and there seemed to be no way in. I looked up the telephone number and the curator, while assuring me that she understood even though she couldn’t speak much English, clearly didn’t get that we were on the pavement outside. I tried explaining using words of Hungarian from the notice-board outside (which was in English and Hungarian) and she so wanted to help, but we weren’t making progress until I realised that one of the other notices, written only in Hungarian, must contain the intercom code. I rang that and she politely asked if I could hold the phone  while she answered the intercom. It was a huge relief to both of us when she understood it was me on both lines and we were let in.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe weren’t charged the entrance fee and had the museum to ourselves for nearly two hours. Before 2015 the museum was basic, with a few pictures and artefacts in the two rooms that had once been the apartment where Attila József was born into an impoverished family. Having been able to sometimes live from his writing during his lifetime and achieving some important critical acclaim, József went on to be recognised as a major voice of the twentieth century after his death and not only did academics and fans visit the museum in the early twenty-first century, but people also regularly left wreaths of flowers at its door to commemorate this extraordinary man who took his own life at the age of 32.

In 2015 there was a significant investment in the museum and the photos and artefacts were matched with audio guides – the one in English was extensive and superbly done – a mixture of biography (told first person) and poetry with details I hadn’t previously found in any of the English language accounts I’d researched. There are first edition copies of his collections, the pencil he wrote with, notebooks, letters, a copy of his birth certificate and an extraordinary interactive digital screen shaped like the base of a felled tree, marked with tree-style life rings, each one with points that could be touched to flash up life events on the screen. One screen also made a ring of women’s pictures – the important women in József’s largely unrequited and always difficult love life.

The curator was endlessly helpful and clearly delighted to have visitors. All this investment and care and no-one there. It made us think seriously about how poetry can so easily become distanced from people’s lives, even poetry that is integrally linked with lives of struggle.

Today I’ve used the notes from the visit to rework one of the early chapters – an excerpt from which is given below. Attila could fall in love in minutes and does so with my character, Selene, who never appears in the histories or photographs as she is not from the same time as Attila, and perhaps is imagining her relationship with him during the trauma of her imprisonment after the 1956 Uprising. Or perhaps not? Either way, she fits the pattern …

Catherine sets out with a map marked with sites. She will start at the little apartment on Gát útca 3, where József was born. She heads towards the river to the tram stop near the parliament buildings, diverts to say good morning to József’s statue, solid and sad. She notices how she is constantly comparing this unfamiliar, melancholy city to Paris, but there too poets have ended their own lives. Margit has told her it’s too far to walk to Gát útca, more than an hour across the city, and too cold to walk so far in November. Even for the short walk to the tram Margit has told her to make sure she has layers of clothing beneath her wool coat. She has put her cashmere jumper over a vest and long-sleeved shirt, but pulls open the coat as she walks. The air has no bite and there is only a gentle breeze. Despite the clouds, it feels almost spring-like. The yellow tram takes her along the riverfront, past the beautiful Erzsébet Bridge and later under the Szabadság bridge, traffic rumbling overhead, the Corvinus University on her left before the cityscape changes to riverside warehouses. It’s a ten minute walk from the stop on Haller utca to Gát útca in District IX, where József was born. With each turn the next street is more dowdy and tired. Lenhossek utca is strewn with litter, the windows of apartments covered in chipboard beneath broken glass , the facades of buildings crumbling. She feels uneasy and conspicuous, wonders how run-down it must have been when József was born here, in poverty, in 1905. She turns left onto Gát útca and the location is signalled by a wall plaque beside which are bunches of flowers and wreaths, as though someone had recently died here. The inscription proclaims, in socialist-realist style, that József was the ‘great poet of the Hungarian proletariat’. Catherine smiles, thinking of József expelled from the Communist Party for his liberal views, but he was certainly from an impoverished home. She rings the intercom next to the green door.

Ah, Catherine? the curator asks. I am with you.

Márta Tákacs appears moments later and Catherine holds out her hand to shake. They walk through a small courtyard and into the ground floor two-roomed apartment, Marta tall and elegant, her fair hair held behind a blue band that matches her eyes.

People come from everywhere, Márta says as they enter.

The walls are covered in black and white photographs. Catherine notes the picture of József’s father in military uniform that she has a copy of and one of his mother that she has not seen previously. Borbála is young and pretty, with soft features. Another image shows a house further along the street where the family lived when József was a toddler – It says: Papa disappeared from this flat, Márta says, translating legend.

By the door a map shows another nineteen apartments that the family lived in after Attila ran back to his mother from the foster family at Öcsöd, who set him to work as a five-year-old swineherd.

They were constantly thrown out for not being able to pay the rent, Márta tells her. Attila was lucky that later his brother-in-law paid for his education so he didn’t have to go on sell newspapers for a living. In his childhood, he’d already known work – collecting coal, selling paper whirligigs that he made from scraps to better-off children. In the war he’d queue all night to buy food for the family, only to find that the cooking lard had run out and there was nothing to be had by eight in the morning. He was only fourteen when his mother died and Makai sent him to the Makó boarding school. They tried to send him to a seminary too, but he left after a week, telling them he was Orthodox, not Catholic. He got good grades at school, but he was already suffering with depression and tried to kill himself when he was only sixteen. I will leave you to look, she says finally, but I’m in the next room if you have questions.

There are copies of József’s poetry collections on a small table, beginning with Szépség koldusa, Beauty’s Beggar, written when he was seventeen. Catherine lingers over each picture, each book, but feels no sense of Attila in the rooms.

After a while Márta reappears with a set of pictures. These were his women, she says. This one was the daughter of the director of his boarding school – Márta Gebe. He was very young, but she inspired several poems. Then Maria Esprit, this time his landlord’s daughter. And this one is most interesting.

The black and white picture is of a beautiful girl, aquiline features, large eyes, her close-cut bobbed hair under a fashionable cap.

Luca Wallennsz was the daughter of Gitta Genes, a very fine artist and ceramicist. There are beautiful works in the National Gallery. Her husband wrote novels and poetry. Very refined Jewish family. They gave salons and many famous names were there, but Gitta met Attila first in the park. He sat next to her on a bench and declared his love five minutes later. He was only nineteen and she was a mature woman, beautiful, but thirty-six. They became close – not what we would call an affair, but a relationship still. He wrote poems for her, of course, like ‘It was summertime’ and then her daughter, Luca, became interested in the salons and Attila fell in love once more. He wrote her many excellent poems, mostly in ’28. Very beautiful – ‘I bless you with sadness and happiness’ is best known of them, set to music often.

He fell in love often, Catherine notes.

Indeed. And he loved Gitta and Luca at the same time too.

Ah, Catherine says, thinking of Attila loving Flóra and Selene simultaneously.

You will know this one, of course.

Catherine holds the picture of Márta Vágó. Yes. The first serious love of his life, perhaps.

Márta nods. They wrote every day when she first went to London, but the distance was too much to sustain. I think that’s what her parents hoped for. They were wealthy intelligentsia, he was the son of a soap factory worker and a peasant, after all. Márta pauses. And this one –

She hands Catherine an image of Judit Szánto.

I always think the most sad, Márta finishes. She lived with him six years, tried to make a place of security for him. He was very broken after the relationship with Márta Vágó ended. But he said it was ‘not love, but an alliance’. Particularly harsh from a man who loved easily. He wrote one poem, ‘Judit’ and a few scraps that never became poems, that was all. While he was with Judit he met Edit.

Márta hands her the photograph of Edit Gyömrői. She was his doctor and he became … she searches for the word … fixated on her so that another doctor, Robert Bak, had to take over.

And then one day he saw this girl, Márta Márton –

Catherine studies the beautiful young face.

He didn’t know her. He saw her and decided he was in love. He wrote the poem ‘Ode’ for her, an exquisite love poem, and when Judit realised that she was not the muse of this poem, she tried to kill herself. They’d already tried to part earlier, but broke apart after this.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And finally –

The last picture is of Flóra Kozmutza. No picture of Selene, Catherine thinks.

They met at Anna Daniels apartment in February ’37 and were engaged by April, but it was never to be of course.

Catherine nods. Thank you. They’re all so beautiful.

Yes, lovely and sad, Márta adds.

 

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Of Terror, Memory and Controversy

Writing in an unfamiliar place where the language is impenetrable (I’ve mastered ‘thank you’ – kösönöm) is giving me a huge amount to process and making the second draft of the novel much richer in detail and atmosphere. But information is never neutral and it’s a difficult and fascinating exercise to sift for particular perspectives in a culture that I’m an outsider to.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA couple of days ago I visited the House of Terror at Andrassy utca, 60. This infamous building was the home of the extreme right-wing Arrow Cross. In power for a relatively short time, this fascist national socialist party with ideals of racial purity benefitted enormously when the Germans occupied Hungary in 1944 after losing patience with their allies for being too moderate. In just over a year the death toll and deportation of Jews, Romanies and other ‘undesirables’ soared, with atrocities mounting. After 1945 and the Soviet regime, the building was taken over by the indigenous arm of the communist secret police, the AVH, and became the nerve centre of purges and terror campaigns against the population.

In my novel, Selene is briefly held in the basement cells of this building (where many were tortured, sometimes dying of their injuries) so it was somewhere I wanted to visit, but it’s a controversial ‘museum’. Péter Apor argues:

The Budapest House of Terror is one of the most notorious examples of abusing spectacular new media audiovisual technology to exhibit a politically and ideologically biased historical narrative. … the institution is not only an eloquent example of how the careless use of ‘public history’ is able to manipulate the ‘consumption’ of history, (but) … represents another important agenda: many new ‘public history’ museums call themselves memory museums. Such claims often contain an epistemological distinction between ‘object-based history’ and ‘collective-mentality-based memory.’ As the case of the House of Terror demonstrates, it is however a dangerous strategy: the idea of an ‘alternative epistemology’ based on ‘collective memory’ is basically a denial of any rational way of obtaining knowledge about the past.

Whilst agreeing that memory is a slippery concept, I wouldn’t wholly follow Apor’s argument. Memory can be a tricky and fraught concept, but is also ‘existentially rich’. Like Christian Karner and Bram Mertens in The Use and Abuse of Memory, I think it possible to find a theoretical position in which memory is neither co-terminus with nor inimical to historical ‘fact’, not a compromised middle-ground, but a genuine dialogue that allows a new perspective between ‘evidence’ and ‘experience’.

But, whatever the epistemology we adopt in examining past atrocities, those that attract cultural tourism whilst also being laden with the political stances of their current creators and curators, are particularly difficult places to interpret. Moreover, the House of Terror has been highly involved in political controversy. Its wholesale backing by the right-wing prime minister Viktor Orbán, especially its opening during an election period in which the socialist opposition was subtly linked to the extreme Soviet past, so warning voters not to vote socialist. Additionally, whilst the house (and its highly effective joint logo that unites the Arrow Cross and Soviet star symbols) claims to examine both Nazi and Communist atrocities, the balance is much more skewed to room after room on the evils of Communism. Clearly the terror and suffering in that era was considerable, but they are not the whole picture and Jewish communities have objected that in massively concentrating on the Soviet era the Holocaust is down-played. (see Tamara Rátz, ‘Interpretation in the House of Terror, Budapest’ in Cultural Tourism in a Changing World, Melanie K Smith & Mike Robinson)

A further problem is that the exhibit not only makes it appear that there was no ‘normal, daily life’ in Hungary in the Communist era, but also locates the ‘evil’ as ‘other’. Whilst those who collaborated with the two regimes or worked for them are named with photographs on a ‘wall of victimisers’ (itself controversial given we don’t know the level of involvement from names and photographs and given that heritage sites do not normally set themselves up as judge and jury) there is nonetheless an overall sense that ‘evil’ came from outside the indigenous culture.

I’m glad to have experienced this first hand and been exposed to the controversies and questions, but most of all the visit was ‘fruitful’ for simply walking through the largely empty basement cells: chilling and inhumane, the atmosphere there was palpably horrifying without need of interpretation boards or video screens.

In the meantime, I’ve got lots to think about as I write a novel in which terror is not a spectacle, but an everyday fear for at least one of my three main characters, and in which memory and it’s slipperiness is central.

 

 

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Writing an Unfamiliar Place

In This is the End of the Story, Catherine seems to establish an identity that will, with a measure of flexibility, see her through life. But in A Remedy for All Things, when events unravel, Catherine revisits events in the previous novel and becomes less confident of the ‘normalcy’ and new relationships she has tried to re-establish as she questions the boundaries between fact and fiction and re-asses issues of perception and identity.

But the internal drama happens in a context. In the first novel the politics and culture of 70s Teesside is as much an omnipresent pressure as Miriam’s epilepsy and Cassie’s (Catherine’s) willingness to believe and be defined by others. So, in this one, questions of meaning and identity are impacted not personal contexts (including mental health issues and neurological conditions such as migraine and aura), but also by political events that sweep individuals along.

I grew up in Teesside in the 70s so the research was heavily reliant on memory backed up with lots of Internet fact checking. (It’s amazing what memory invents and interchanges.) I feel like Catherine is someone I know. I’ve lived with her for a few years now. I dream her dreams. But not only have her problems changed and become more complex, but they are located in an unfamiliar place.

I know of excellent novels that are set in places that the author has never visited. Any historical novel of necessity has an element of this since even if we can visit the historic houses and sites, see artefacts, travel to the places, read the histories, we can’t go back in time. But some authors can convince with research alone write novels as though they had lived in Mongolia when what they’ve actually done is read widely and surf the net endlessly. We live in a world of information – a great deal of it spurious, but much of it rich. In addition to endless travel guides and blogs, books in translation, films with subtitles, websites for even the smallest locations and a plethero of information on cultural mores, we also have Google Earth and Maps to allow us to walk (virtually) around far away cities at the click of a mouse. So why travel?

My current novel has two characters from Budapest – the poet Attila Jozsef in the 30s and a young woman in prison after the 56 Uprising. Before arriving in Budapest I read everything I could find on Attila Jozsef – all the poetry that’s translated into English, every website I could find (including those in Hungarian that I could persuade Google to ‘translate’ for me) and a biography that took some tracking down. I read books about the 1956 Uprising, both novels and non-fiction and others about wartime experiences in Budapest (even though this was background rather than part of the timeline of my novel). I found locations and walked the streets on my computer. I wrote the 55 chapters in outline and then, using the research, expanded each outline into a full chapter. I wrote a great deal on trains in the last week travelling from Paris to Budapest (a journey that both of my Hungarian characters made) and finished a first full draft of the novel not long after arriving here.

It’s very much a ‘first draft’ and as I settle into this unfamiliar place I’m more and more OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAconvinced of the need to experience as much as humanly possible as part of creative practice. My research left me in no doubt of the enormity of suffering that Hungary has experienced with the twentieth century seeing atrocities from both the Arrow Cross and the Communist regime. But to see buildings still scarred by bullet holes; to see memorials at the Great Synagogue, bombed by the Arrow Cross, taken over as a German Radio station in WW2 and then hemmed into a ghetto, where thousands died of cold and starvation, their bodies piled in the synagogue garden; to eat the local food; hear the language; begin to feel something of the character of the place and people … all of this can only be done in the flesh.

The last two mornings I’ve begun to do second drafts of the early chapters and also to add in details to key scenes across the novel that have arisen from visiting sites in Budapest. On our first day we walked to the river to the statue of Attila Jozsef, cut flung aside, huge and brooding, a facsimile of lines from a poem beneath him on the steps:

Mintha szivembôl folyt volna tova Zavaros,

bölcs és nagy volt a Duna

 

As if it flowed straight from my heart

Troubled, wise and great was the Danube.

 

or perhaps:

 

As if my own heart had opened its gate:

The Danube was turbulent, wise and great.

It’s a metal statue, but the mixture of melancholy and longing was palpable.

We’ve been to the photographic museum where the photo-images of Budapest in the 90s (when my character Catherine is visiting to write about Joszef) have dramatically changed my ideas about the place at that time, despite all the reading I’d already done.

We’ve visited the Orthodox Kazinczy Street Synagoue – so bright and alive, full of folk design and with windows of painted glass – flamboyantly Art Nouveau – Secessionist. And also the Dohány Street Synagogue of the Neolog congregation in the Erzsébetváros district. It’s the biggest synagogue in Europe and takes nearly three-thousand people. It looks more like a cathedral with an organ and choir – staffed by non-Jews in a wonderful bit of theological casuistry.

It’s beautiful, Moorish-style building full of ochres, deep pinks and dark wood polished like mirrors; the glass opaque and lots of it coloured – mustard and cobalt with flashes of scarlet around the creamy white stars of David. It feels sombre, but it’s seen a lot of tragedy. After the war it survived as a prayer house through the Communist era, but wasn’t renovated until the early 90s. There’s an exquisite memorial in the garden that was erected during the renovations. A weeping tree in silver; each slender leaf has a name inscribed on it – so simple and poignant. A tree of life in the face of death.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I could read about any of this and I’m aware that in tiny, finite lives reading and other ways of accruing information that makes us more empathic is vital. I’m a novelist because I know the power of narratives to inform, to inspire, to get under the skin of what might make us human. But I also know the power of place and Budapest is communicating that powerfully. As a writer, the urge to travel, to be touched by a sense of place, has never felt more urgent and I hope the unfamiliarity will make me push at the boundaries of what I think and write as the work progresses.

 

 

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A Budapest Anatomy of Melancholy

Close up of Attila Jozsef's statue

Attila Jozsef statue, Budapest

After a launch in Paris and train rides across Europe, with a stop in Munich before finally arriving at Budapest’s Keleti station, we are settling into Budapest. It is unlike anywhere we’ve ever visited – not only is the Hungarian language seemingly impenetrable, even to someone with a smattering of Latin and French and German, but the sense of place is distinctly different. In the centre of a huge capital city cars give way to pedestrians routinely and stop to let people cross and people are polite and helpful – ‘you’re welcome’ seems to be the phrase of choice in every café or shop – yet there are not many smiles to be seen.

The current politics in Hungary are not encouraging. One post I read by a Hungarian/Norwegian blogger, talked about leaving the country due to the level of crony capitalism, nepotism, poor working conditions with longer hours than other European countries and degradation of infrastructure.

Life under Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party is replete with extreme right-wing thinking, whilst the major opposition party, Jobbik, is even more worrying and makes no secret of its views on ‘ethnic purity’. In such an environment, Budapest is gaining a reputation as a haven for disgruntled nationalists from across the West, not something that is easy to substantiate either way with rival blogs claiming wildly differing ‘facts’, but even assuming that most ex-pats are liberal or apolitical, it seems likely that a minority strand are attracted to an increasingly right wing rhetoric. I hope I wouldn’t be smiling if this were happening before my eyes back in the UK, but the current political scene isn’t the only factor in this atmosphere of melancholy; it’s something that is clearly not a new phenomenon in Budapest — as is discussed in the fascinating article (‘Happy with Tears’) by Nicky Loomis on the Los Angeles Review of Books’ site, reviewing László Földényi’s Melancholy.

While Földényi’s book addresses wider philosophical questions of melancholy, Loomis, from a Hungarian family, is particularly interested in this as a cultural and national trait. Her mother tells her that it’s due to the country being landlocked and occupied one too many times. She wonders:

“Can pain be passed down … The more I heard while living there, the more I began to project — e.g., the pain in a woman’s eyes on a train was because of some horror she witnessed during her lifetime. This is a very powerful and dangerous road to go down as a writer, but it is unavoidable as you begin to research a place and write about it, to start to connect the dots in the landscape you are moving through. Let me not grow too fond of other people’s pain, I kept reminding myself.

Yet that pain, that melancholy, kept presenting itself during my time there.”

She cites the extraordinary isolation of the Hungarian language, unlike any neighbouring language, so that Hungarian literature has been slow to be translated and recognised; the bleakness of the landscape, especially in the interminable winters (captured both in the writing László Krasznahorkai and films of Béla Tarr) and points out that Hungary has its own ‘suicide song’ (‘Gloomy Sunday’, covered by Billie Holiday) and that even the national anthem sings about sorrow and pity. She quotes Judith Sollosy of Corvina Press cautioning that melancholy has sometimes been anything from a stereotype to a fad, but also noting that Hungary has had suffered constant defeats and is left celebrating its losses.

Within hours of arriving here, the ‘melancholy’ was noticeable and prompted me to search out other views on it, as well as to do more research into current affairs here. The characters in my book know plenty about sorrow, pity and suffering. One is based on the historical character and exceptional poet, Attila József, who either died in a tragic accident or of suicide (the balance seems to favour the latter) in his early thirties in 1937. Whatever the truth of his death under a rail carriage, he certainly struggled with severe mental health issues, spending several periods in institutions and also struggled with the politics of his day and unhappy personal relationships. Another character, Selene, is a young woman in 1959 whose Jewish family have previously fled from Paris ahead of the Nazis (where her French mother met her Hungarian father) only to lose the father to the brutal Munkaszolgálat, a forced labour conscription that particularly targeted Jews and intellectuals thought to be too untrustworthy and unnationalistic to be soldiers in the alliance with Nazi Germany. Selene is briefly involved in the 1956 uprising and is arrested, detained (for a long time without trial) and held indefinitely, not knowing whether she will survive or ever see her young daughter again. And the third is a writer, Catherine – the protagonist of my recent novel, This is the End of the Story – trying to make sense of these two lives, but struggling with a series of personal tragedies, losses and increasing doubt.

Upper floors of a decaying building

One of central Budapest’s many crumbling buildings

As I slowly get acquainted with a city full of beauty, but also teeming with ambivalence, poverty, once grand buildings crumbling alongside others that are shiny and renovated, I’m happy to be in this place that has known so many tears and continues to do so. There is authenticity here and a huge amount to learn, and although I will only skim the surface in the few weeks I have here, it’s a privilege (thanks to Arts Council England) to be able to research the novel in the place it’s set and to soak up something of what shapes particular people in particular cultures, moments of history and landscapes.

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Meet Me in Budapest

Hand of Miriam on the wall of the Toledo Museum of MagicCharacter is endlessly fascinating. When I’m writing fiction I can get lost in the people I’m writing, even begin to dream their dreams. The mysteriousness and opaqueness of others is endlessly intriguing, but so to is their context. Who we are, the stories we tell ourselves or allow others to tell about us, arise from a matrix of particular factors, amongst them time and place. In This is the End of the Story, Cassie comes of age in 1970s Teesside and her context helps to shape her: the industrial landscape, the decline of employment, the cultural expectations of a class, time and place, are all issues that she has to face in forming any sense of identity.

Cassie shares my own background in large measure, though heavily fictionalised, but memory is a tricky thing so I still found myself doing lots of research – songs I thought I’d heard at one time often turned out to be from a couple of years ahead; fashions and news items similarly. Despite that, there was a familiarity of place that informed me and gave the writing a significant grounding. When it came to Toledo, though, another main setting in the novel, I was on very different territory.

There was no way to visit eleventh century Toledo so I had to rely on archival material, translations of texts about Toledo at the end of a cultured and flourishing Muslim rule, and a novel I’d read as a child, Casilda of the Rising Moon. Books and the Internet were invaluable, but it was only after I was given a trip to Toledo as a birthday gift that I felt really confident of this part of the writing. When I stood in a tiny mosque (later made into a church, Cristo de la Luz) that Casilda might conceivably have stood in 900 years earlier or when I visited The Museum of Spanish Magic, housed in a tenth century Islamic cave-house, complete with an ancient hand of Fatima (or hand of Miriam) talisman imprinted on the wall, I felt a sense of place that I hadn’t experienced from any textual research.

I was recently corresponding with Cinnamon Press novelist, Landeg White. Landeg was lived and worked in the West Indies, Malawi, Sierra Leone, has been a professor of African Studies and has lived for a considerable time in Portugal, where his poetry output has included a translation of Luís de Camões, published by Princeton University Press in 2008. He is someone who knows a great deal about ‘place’ and the writing of place, and remarked that going to a place to do in situ research is ‘absolutely necessary’. He was re-reading George Eliot’s Romola, admiring the way she took the trouble to find out things instead of just sitting in her attic making it all up.

Places are characters and to some extent we can fictionalise them and imagine them, but if the real place is to be the jumping off point, complete with an atmosphere, a history, a complex culture of food, sounds, smells, rivers, architecture … then immersing ourselves in it can only enhance the writing process. Moreover, moving ourselves as writers so that we are out of place, out of our small comfort zones as we write, pushes at our boundaries, makes us more porous to influences larger than ourselves.

In 2012 the ‘Writing Britain’ exhibition at the British Library captivated me. There is something so powerful about an original manuscript or early proofs spattered with corrections; something intimate and epiphanic at once. All the books in the exhibition were united by a strong sense of place. I saw the hand-written last page of Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm; Alan Garner’s The Owl Service (one of my favourite books from childhood and still one of the most powerful retellings of the Blodeuwedd story from the Mabinogi), a first edition of ‘Little Gidding’ — ‘the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started‘ — and Kathleen Raine’s Northumberland journals in her own hand, ‘those abiding essences, the rocks and hills and mountains’ raising their voices to ‘utter their wild credo’ next to a bit that reads like my own journal, talking about cold rural houses in winter with no central heating and managing the logs.

I came out awed, dazzled and dazed. I had entered a trance in there among runes and spells, within the song lines of connection. When I left, the world felt too bright and sharp. This is why we write — surely — for this extraordinary intimacy with strong magic, the reverie of words that make worlds. And in this enchantment, why is it that place features so dominantly? Because location — whether it is the ‘nowhere’ of utopia, the precise smells and sights of a Paris street, a Welsh mountainside, an Indian market, or a Birmingham canal — and story are essentially linked. Writing takes us to a place – real and visceral, imagined and strange, dream or nightmare, anchored on a map or found only in the interior of a mind. Good writing takes us ‘somewhere’ even when the place is called ‘nowhere.’

Because it is in a place that we begin to narrativise our lives, and the lives of our characters. We tell stories to reconcile ourselves to time — to the huge events of cosmology, to the big and small and hidden events of history and to our personal journeys — and in doing so we inevitably locate those stories — somewhere, someplace.

Travel for research or to write in another location seems to me vital, but it can also be difficult to achieve – busy lives, constraints of time, money and commitments make such ‘writing away’ time incredibly precious, so I feel immensely privileged to have the opportunity to do some writing in Budapest for the sequel to This is the End of the Story.

In A Remedy For All Things, Cassie, now using her full name, Catherine, will be undertaking her own research and writing trip to Budapest in the footsteps of the 1930s poet, Attila József, who died in what may have been an accident, though is generally thought to be suicide. Set in Budapest in November 1993, one of the coldest winters on record, Catherine’s will interweave with the story of Selene Solweig Virág, a woman who, if she ever lived, took part in the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 and was subsequently imprisoned in horrific conditions; a woman who seems to have had her own strange connections to Attila Jozsef.

I can’t travel to the Budapest of the 30s, 50s or 90s, but I’ve been given the chance to soak up a sense of place for a month, writing, talking to writers and archivists in Budapest, visiting museums, walking the streets that my characters walked, in fact and in fiction. Place and political context make a huge difference to personal stories. The stories we tell ourselves and allow others to tell about us are shaped in no small measure by where we find ourselves. Meet me in Budapest as the story unfolds…

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It’s never the end of the story

This is the End of the Story raises questions about perception and identity, about friendship, love, loyalty and the stories we tell ourselves or allow others to tell about us. Belief is Cassie’s gift, but coming of age in one period of political turmoil, Teesside in the late 70s, Cassie reaches her own resolution about who she might be and how she wants to live.

What really happened was that I was slow to learn. Belief wasn’t so much my gift as my curse.

Cassie may be more resourceful than either Miriam or Liam imagine and when she eventually visits Toledo, tracking down places where Miriam insists she may have lived in a former life, it is far from the end of the story.

After writing: This is the End of the Story, a novel by Catherine Anne McManus, she is adamant that she will never again be ‘Casilda’. No more Cassie. No more Kitty Brennan.

And when Cassie, now insisting that she be called Catherine, meets Simon, she appears to be in a new phase of her life – a confident writer and editor, about to undertake a trip to Budapest to research the life and untimely death of the 1930s poet, Attila József. But once in Budapest during November 1993, one of the coldest winters on record, Catherine finds herself disturbed by dreams about the life of a woman imprisoned at the end of the 1950s after the Hungarian uprising. As Catherine begins to investigate whether the woman, Selene Solweig Virág, ever existed, she becomes more deeply drawn in to another life, one that has a strange and inexplicable connection to Attila Jozsef.

As the month progresses, the dates tracking the last twenty-eight days of József’s life and Selene’s increasingly desperate imprisonment in 1959, Catherine once again begins to question her own identity and to question the stories Miriam had once told her. As her life becomes increasingly improbable she remembers Miriam’s insistence that ‘the unreason of the world is more insane than any fiction.’

The questions of perception and identity only become more intense when Simon joins her is Budapest and as the date of József’s apparent suicide approaches. But will this be the end of the story? ‘There’s a remedy for all things except death,’ Quixote tells us, but what of the next life and the next?

A Remedy for All Things is the sequel to This is the End of the Story – I’ll be finishing the first draft in Budapest in June and blogging about the writing process… the power of poetry… how political contexts impact on personal stories… the stories we tell ourselves and allow others to tell about us…

 

 

 

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