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 convinced 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.
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.
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.