Tag Archives: community

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under writing

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.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under writing

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.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under writing

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under writing

Gathering Eggs

 

There are things happening in my garden. Half of it is no longer wilderness, but dug over with lawn appearing as the rather grey summer plods on. A large trampoline now sits near the riverside fence. A few weeks ago a chicken coup appeared and within days was inhabited. Last week I woke to find, overnight, a handsome and hefty five bar gate had appeared at 90 degrees to a newly repaired drystone wall. And today I opened the curtains to find a very lovely little shed sat out there.

For years I’ve thought one day we would get around to doing something with the garden, but the house is probably enough of a project for a lifetime and a spinal injury doesn’t make me the most suited person to digging. Anyway, there is always editing to be done. So how is it all happening? I haven’t suddenly discovered treasure in the garden with which to pay for gardeners, but instead I have discovered sharing. We blithely tell toddlers to share, but often quietly forget about it as adults.

“There is no delight in owning anything unshared.”
Seneca

My garden is becoming a place to grow food and house chickens and provide play thanks to my neighbours and it is such a delight to see it taking shape. Dylan has incredible energy, working late at night often a full day’s work, and he’s started a trend. Other neighbours have been busy clearing my garage to use as a workshop for their beautiful vintage American cars and in the process have done masses of clearing and tidying of the area around the garage. Tomorrow a skip arrives and Seth is going to have fun with sledge hammer helping to take down a semi-dilapidated outhouse. By sharing the outdoor resources of the house everyone benefits: the garden looks better, three families have a more useful space, there is more sense of local community and there are gorgeous fresh eggs.

At the end of Annie Hall, Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) says:

I thought of that old joke, y’know, the, this… this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, “Doc, my brother’s crazy; he thinks he’s a chicken.” And the doctor says, “Well, why don’t you turn him in?” The guy says, “I would, but I need the eggs.” Well, I guess that’s pretty much now how I feel about relationships; y’know, they’re totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd, and… but I guess we keep goin’ through it because most of us… need the eggs.

Sharing puts us into a different relationship with neighbours. It’s probably absurd by many conventional standards – disregarding fences and blurring boundaries, slightly dissolving the insular nuclear family mentality. It’s messier than just closing the door and saying ‘mine’, but there are eggs.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized