Tag Archives: imagination

The Objects that Speak of Us

Researching A Remedy for All Things in Budapest, I’ve been aware of how vital artefacts can be in communicating something about a person. The thought struck me sharply on a walk along the Danube, confronted by a simple and heart-breaking installation along the bank — pairs of shoes in memory of the Jewish citizens who were herded to the river in 1944 and 1945, made to take off their shoes by members of the fascist Arrow Cross party, and shot; their bodies washed away by the river while the shoes remained, empty.

Another author, Nigel Hutchinson, who is an artist as well as poet, remarked that shoes are particularly affecting because of the way a foot shapes a shoe to itself, so that each one bear the unique imprint of the wearer. This is certainly the case and other artefacts can also speak volumes as I noticed when I visited the Attila József Museum. Not only were examples of his hand-writing on display, but other personal objects, like the retractable pencil that he wrote with; a facsimile of a rocking horse that was his only toy as a young child and which he gave to his mother for firewood when they had none; and a small change purse.

The purse has gone into a scene when Attila first meets Selene:

No, don’t think that, she reassures. I can’t explain how I’m here, but I am real. I was about to make dinner for my mother. I sat down for a moment and thought I was getting a migraine, but then I heard a train and … I heard a train last time too.

You are still feeling sick?

No, the pain didn’t come. I get this phantosmia — of oranges usually — then lights and darkness over half my vision, but both times I’ve met you … the symptoms have started, but no headache — I hear a train and … here I am.

Phantosmia, Attila repeats, as though savouring the word. You are hungry? There’s a taverna on Szoladi útca with good food. I might even have a few worthless pengő with me.

Selene smiles, reaches into a pocket for her small purse. If we eat it will have to be you who pays, she says, holding out coins — forints and fillérs. My currency that will be meaningless in 1937.

He pulls a well-fingered, small, square change purse from his pocket. It’s stiff brown leather creaks a little as he eases the flap from underneath the cross-strap and peers inside. He nods and smiles. So, I will buy you dinner.

But you … I don’t think you can afford …

A special occasion, he insists.

He holds an arm and she links it as though they are old friends.

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And other objects have assumed even greater importance in communicating themes or threads through the novel. Catherine wears a small necklace that first appeared in This is the End of the Story when she is searching for traces of the 11th century Casilda and dreams that her friend Miriam is with her:

When I step out of the shower, the flow of blood has ceased.

Here, Miriam says, enfolding me in a white towel. And this, she adds. She holds out a white knitted shawl that I’ve never seen, but know from the pages of Casilda of the Rising Moon, pulls it around me. It’s a cold night, she says, get under the blankets. I’ll make you some mint tea.

I slide between white cotton sheets, drowse.

When I wake, the sky is dark, sharp stars dazzle through open shutters. On the bedside table of dark wood and mother of pearl, a silk cord of palest blue, strung with a tiny hamsa: the hand of Miriam in damascene black, silver, gold. Beside it a turquoise glass of mint tea has cooled.

The hamsa becomes not only Catherine’s link back to Miriam and to a time of a more visionary sense of the world, but also a link to Selene, who, imprisoned at the end of the 1950s, seems to be in possession of the same talisman, carefully hidden.

I never saw the enchantment, only story and facts aligned. Miriam was my Ben Haddaj. I was Casilda. I was not Cassie (Catherine Anne McManus) from the Lawn’s Estate. Miriam was so certain that in this lifetime Ben Haddaj would save me and that we would be together forever. And I clung to her until an incident so small, so brutal, sent my world spinning apart. And then I rationalised it all away. … I survived Liam and the first miscarriage, convinced myself that life was beginning to make sense. And it was, even through the shock of Miriam’s death, even through the strange experiences in Toledo — the sense of Casilda with me at the tiny mosque, the inexplicable certainty of Miriam comforting me after the sudden flow of blood, the mint tea that I found, cooling by my bedside when I woke, and the hamsa that I wear always, that Selene carries always, that I remember seeing Judith wearing the last time I saw her …

I have lived without the facts and the story conforming to one another for years. I have learnt the art of ambiguity, but the intrusion of this other reality, this fragmented sense of identity and perception is straining my ability to function,

Objects anchor us. Objects can signal how people identify themselves and how they want to be perceived by others. Objects become the repositories of memories, reminders of events. There’s an antique pen in the current novel, which Catherine gives to Simon after a visit to the artists’ colony at Szentendre, and which will re-appear in the third book in the trilogy, For Hope is Always Born. It’s personal, says something about the user, adds texture and depth to the narrative, shows the reader some vital detail without bluntly telling her what to think or see …

There’s a sketchbook that Catherine is given in Paris that once belonged to Selene’s father and which becomes not only a symbol of a life that Selene has lost, but also a possible motif for the future:

My father worked for Sándor and Marie Virág. Marie was Parisian, they both knew art and had met at school. Sándor had a particularly good eye. He could draw too — a very good sense of line, but he was a gregarious man, they were good with people, good at finding homes for art works and good at spotting whose work would sell. They lived above the shop here with their daughter. All was going well, but then …

The Nazis?

It was before they arrived, before their foul ‘Ordances’, but by the late Thirties even so-called liberals were denouncing Jews, blaming them for luring us into a war with Germany that was nothing to do with ‘real’ French people. The rhetoric was more and more violent. Sándor decided they should leave. He could see what was coming. My father, Charles, wanted to buy the gallery, but he didn’t have the savings. They hoped to return and they liked him, wanted to make him a partner. So my father paid what he could, nothing like the worth of the gallery, but they drew up their own agreement — when they came back he would use the profits from the intervening time to make it a full partnership.

But they never returned.

My father tried to find them, but in Hungary …

Jews were forced to move into ghettos, it would have been hard.

Yes, and then Communism — but it’s preyed on him all these years.

He’s still alive?

Yes, eighty-eight and in failing health, but his mind is sharp.

I can’t imagine they’d think anything other than what good hands they left the gallery in.

The granddaughter — Miriam you said? — if she could write to my father, even visit. I know he’d want to compensate her, there is still a clause in his will…

She’s another missing person at the moment, my friends are trying to locate her, but if we find her …

Thank you. Marcel hesitates, lifts the package from the tray. If you find her, could you give her this or pass it on to relatives?

Catherine unfolds the carefully layered brown paper around a sketchbook, dark brown card covers, a taped binding in burgundy. Inside, thick sketch paper, each page a study of a person —

They are all of Marie or his daughter, Marcel offers. He leans over, stares at the open page. You look like you could be the Selene as an adult, he says. You are also related?

Catherine shivers. No, she says quietly, just … a coincidence, I suppose. They’re beautiful, very delicate.

Yes — so few lines, so much expression. You will take the book for Miriam?

Well, I —

For my father to know they are on their way to Sándor’s family — even if you don’t find her for some time — it would give him great peace.

Catherine nods. Thank you.

And there’s a book that Catherine is shown by Szuzsanna Makai, Attila József’s niece, on which the plot might turn, but you’ll have to wait for the book to be published to learn more about that object…

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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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When life becomes fiction and fiction life…

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inside the RestauranteLife and fiction are rarely hard and fast boundaries; far from being readily demarcated they blur into one another, are subjective and slippery. In Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Sancho desperately tries to make it otherwise, not by keeping these two ‘categories’ apart, but by trying to make fact and story congruent – for him a story has to be ‘true’ or ‘authentic’; a story has to be told in a certain way and it has to not invite trouble –

…the ancients didn’t begin their stories just as they pleased … your worship must stay quiet and not go anywhere seeking harm, … turn up some other road, since nobody is making us follow this one, where there are so many terrors to frighten us.

Quixote will have none of this. Seeking truth (rather than fact) and justice makes him live ‘as if’ these things were already the way of the world, an extreme utopian vision that changes reality through perspective, but inevitably leads to conflict – the windmills are, after all, giants (corporations, media, war-machines…) bent on destroying what is humane and hopeful and visionary. But while the fearless imagination belongs to Quixote, it is Sancho who lives in this interior, quixotic world. Sancho is not only loyal, but an enabler. Despite constantly struggling to understand the difference between fantasy and reality, he believes in Quixote, and enters into Quixote’s inner world so fully that he supports its continued existence, making it so.

These are areas that fascinate me –

how fact and fiction constantly collide and interweave;

how one person becomes so immersed in the fantasy life of another so as to enable and support it…

Children do this with great fluency – using make believe to build abstract thought, to imbue the world with symbolic meaning – but somewhere along the line most of us ‘grow out’ of it. Most, but not all – and in This is the End of the Story I wanted to explore the kind of enabling that requires immersion in another’s fantasy (a quixotic, visionary fantasy that is determined to act as if there is justice in the world) and I wanted to explore how this changes the enabler – the effects of the stories we tell ourselves or allow others to tell about us.

And so – belief is Cassie’s gift. Growing up in 1970s Teesside, Catherine Anne McManus, a clever, but naïve teenager from a dysfunctional home, believes herself to be whoever others tell her she is — Cassie, Kat, Kitty, or even, at the insistence of her quixotic friend, Miriam, Casilda – an 11th century Muslim princess who later became a saint, a ‘real’ person whose story is shrouded in myths and romantic legend.

Cassie and Miriam are united by Miriam’s extraordinary internal world and Cassie’s belief, despite Cassie’s frequent pleas that Miriam should avoid trouble and choose another road, and despite a traumatic incident on a beach in Scotland. Miriam, however, constantly predicts that Cassie will betray her and persistently tests Cassie’s loyalty – including using her epilepsy as a tool to manipulate Cassie. No major plot spoilers – but Miriam is not blessed with belief and when an act of betrayal so small, but so profound propels Cassie towards Liam, someone also eager to tell Cassie who she really is, then it may be the end of the story. Or is it? Cassie may be more resourceful than either Miriam or Liam imagines and even when she eventually visits Toledo in the footsteps of Casilda, is this the end of the story?

This is the End of the Story, is of course, completely made up – at the same time it’s the kind of narrative pretence in which life and fiction is irrevocably blurred. Once upon a time in Teesside I had an extraordinary relationship that the fiction resonates with. I could list a thousand ways in which the characters are purely fictions; a thousand ways in which x or y didn’t happen in the way the novel describes or ever happen at all – that would be true, but under that truth is a more complex one – one that fascinates me still because who can say for certainty where the story and the fact reside? I tried to reflect on that conundrum within the narrative by having Cassie revise the story of her coming of age in later life, only to make it more tangled than ever.

I also wanted the sense that Cassie, as she becomes less naïve, takes on Miriam’s quixotic legacy. In Don Quixote, the truth that is discovered in dreams is powerful; and in the second novel Cassie, now Catherine, begins to live someone else’s life in her dreams, but that’s another story, which begs the question – is this the end of the story?

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January 6, 2017 · 11:03 pm