Tag Archives: meaning

How to measure and not measure a life

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I’ve recently completed an extraordinary four weeks of research, writing and travel in Spain, ending in Barcelona after two weeks in Toledo, via a few days stay in both Zaragoza and Burgos. The pressure of unfamiliar places, the space to devote time to walking and soaking up the places, and writing, is perspective altering. A whole month away to dive deep into a passion is a privilege and a challenge and I can feel shifts taking place in how I view my use of time and the nature of my future work.

Life, David Henry Thoreau tells us, is precious. We do not want to find ourselves at the end of it having not lived. So how do we know that we are living, that we are sucking out the marrow of life?

For me it has to do with the courage to live as the person I want to become. That has made me think hard about my art and my work and about what I need to let go of in order to measure my progress.

The apophatic way

In theology, the via negativa (negative way) describes divinity by what it is not. This is the tradition of what must be absent for something, in this case ‘God’, to be God. So much of what consumes our lives and out time is inessential. We need a negative way in order to pursue great things.

The speaker Stephen Covey illustrates this with a large clear bucket. Into the bucket go the elements of our lives. One set comprises pebbles, which represent the thousand and one small demands on our time. The other set is big rocks that represent the important things: family, transformational relationships, meaningful work, passions… If we tip in the pebbles and then try to fit in the rocks, we will fail to make room for the things that matter. If we take care of the rocks first, the small things will fit around them.

Greg McKeown goes even further in the book Essentialism, pointing out that many of the small things could disappear without anyone noticing. And in Good to Great, Jim Collins says,

If you have more than three priorities, you don’t have any.

Taking time away from my normal environment and routines is a powerful reminder that what we don’t do, the things we don’t want to be, are vital.

What do you need to let go of to be the person you want to become?

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For me, some of those things are qualities or mindsets that limit me. Things like:

  • making excuses for not keeping promises to myself
  • small thinking
  • fear
  • attaching to outcomes rather than to the hope, expectations and process
  • complaining instead of problem-solving
  • self sabotage

Other things that I’m acutely aware of needing to let go are those things that so many of us tolerate in life and that, once tolerated, set the tone of our days, weeks, months and more… Life is too short and too precious to tolerate:

  • wasted time:

I don’t mean day dreaming or rest or play or creative mooching. What wastes time (and our lives) is more often those small pebbles — hours on Facebook, demanding emails, inessential nonsense…

  • bullying and harassment:

Sometimes aggressive and difficult people can teach us a great deal about ourselves by how we react. I recently had an onslaught of demands and undermining from someone over quite an extended period. It made me reflect on lots of aspects of my internal response and the importance of doing the creative work I’m committed to and letting it speak for itself. And it also made me much more clear about setting boundaries and what none of us should tolerate.

  • bad literature

Story is my way of making sense of the world. Narrative matters in every civilisation and era. Not only do I want to make Cinnamon Press more and more a home for excellence and not only do I want to push my own writing further but, even more fundamentally, I have no time for story that lie. I don’t mean stories that are imaginary or fantastical. I mean story that deliberately misleads, that sells hatred and division, that promotes the myths of fascism or greed. Story is too urgent for that.

The katophatic way

Having a concentrated period to be in flow state, writing and immersing myself in unfamiliar places, concentrates the heart. The tradition of katophatic theology deals in what we can positively say. We need to know what and who we don’t want to be; what we need to let go of, but we also need to know what we want to embrace.

What do you need to embrace to be the person you want to become?

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How to forget balance and embrace the magic of rhythm

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Writing is the perfect metaphor for life in so many ways and when it comes to finding our flow, especially so. Writing relies on rhythm rather than balance and that’s a good guideline for life too.

How often have you heard that your life needs balance? Particularly a ‘work-life balance’ (as though work is not part of life). A quick internet search will reveal hundreds of blogs devoted to the quest for balance, promising such things as:

how to establish the perfect work-life balance through setting healthy boundaries

while another urges employers to ensure that their employees have:

a satisfactory work-life balance

Intriguing that the first, aimed at those taking control, goes for ‘perfect’, while employees get ‘satisfactory’. But the message is consistent: balancing is an essential skill that you neglect at your peril. Is this the case? Is life a tightrope walk?

It doesn’t have to be. The idea of balance assumes that there are a lot of equal calls on us and we should be treating each to the same time and attention. But life is much messier and more interesting than this. And it can be much less stressful. Remember:

You can do anything, but not everything

Follow your quest

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Life is too short for ‘to do’ lists. We need quests. And If you have purpose then work life and personal life begin to integrate as part of a whole, rather than being warring factions.

If you have work that energises you rather than drains you, the idea of striving for balance is unlikely to occur.

If you are a writer and have the luxury of writing for weeks or months as your main activity, you’ll be ecstatic, but you won’t have balance.

Great artists and musicians are rarely balanced — they put as much time as possible into their art.

Attend to where you are

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In Your To Be List, James McMahon and Lauren Rosenfeld aim:

To be engaged at whatever I am doing, whenever I am doing it. What I do wholeheartedly energizes me, no matter what that is. It is only when I get into the pattern of getting through one thing in order to get to the next thing that I feel exhausted and overwhelmed.

When we live in the moment and pay attention to the project we’re working on, the food we’re eating, the book we’re reading, the person we are with … we’re more fulfilled and less stressed. But it isn’t balance: it’s savouring one thing at a time.

Get into flow…

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14 excellent reasons that compel writers to write

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Why do we do it? The reasons for writing are as various as writers, but among them are common threads that unite us.

1. For the trance

I can lose a whole day writing. I forget to eat or drink. I come round hours after beginning and discover I’m cold. Writing takes us into an inner world that is endless and extraordinary.

In Our Faces, Our Hearts, Brief as Photos, John Berger describes one of those luminous moments when an ordinary place takes on luminous, otherworldly quality:

Everything was shifting. The three pear trees, their hillock, the other side of the valley, the harvested fields, the forests. The mountains were higher, every tree and field nearer. Everything visible approached me. Rather, everything approached the place where I had been, for I was no longer in that place. I was everywhere, as much in the forest across the valley as in the dead pear tree, as much on the face of the mountain as in the field where I was raking hay.

When we write, we’re opening ourselves up. Writing takes us into another space. As Virginia Woolf described it:

I walk making up phrases; sit, contriving scenes; am in short in the thick of the greatest rapture known to me.

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14 reasons why writers need to read

It’s depressing as both an editor and a writer when I hear writers (or more usually aspiring writers) saying they don’t read. Getting books out into the world is difficult. It’s a huge amount of work for both publishers and writers and the only way it’s possible is if there are people out there who read. If you are a writer who doesn’t read the work of others, what would make you imagine that others would want to read your book?

Writers have to read:

1. Because reading is your world

Imagine a chef who hates to eat, an artist who’s never been to a gallery. It’s not credible — neither is a writer who doesn’t read.

2. Influence is good

Sometimes writers tell me they don’t read because they don’t want to influence their work. This is the height of arrogance and flawed thinking. No one creates ex nihilo. No one is that original. Of course you shouldn’t be copying others or never finding your own voice, but what has gone before you is a treasure trove. Tradition and inspiration are all around you in books. You can learn structure, technique and so much more by reading. We become innovative by building on the past, not by writing it off.

3. For the love of language

Great writers are those who have found wonderful ways to use language Their language might be supple or taut and honed. It might be rich or lyrical. It might be rhythmic or urgent. You will discover an infinite kaleidoscope of vocabulary and style in the pages of books written by others.

4. To encourage imagination

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4 reasons why writers need to take their freedom seriously

1. Writers hold out a vision of transformation

The writing life demands a degree of reflection.

Writers are people who walk around with their senses open, determined to stay awake in a world where so many people seem to be half asleep.

Writers are those with imagination and insight.

They are people who reflect an extraordinary world within that can transform the world without.

Writers are not those who go with the flow.

People may claim to often that a book is ‘life-changing’ but nonetheless every time we read, there is the possibility of a new perspective and growth.

And if the written word is so transformative then the chances are that writers have power and responsibility.

2. Writers are witnesses

When Geoff Dyer asked John Berger what he saw as the ‘job of his life’, replied:

Perhaps I am like all people who tell stories — storytellers lose their identity and are open to the lives of other people. Maybe when you look at their entire output you can see something that really belongs to that one person. But at any one moment it is difficult to see what the job of your life is because you are so aware of what you are lending yourself to. This is perhaps why I use the term “being a witness.” One is witness of others but not of oneself.

For Berger, this sense of being a witness involved total immersion and openness to other people and other places.

The notion of the writer as witness is a lot to live up to, yet it is compelling. In The Artist’s Way Julia Cameron challenges writers to become witnesses. There are countless novels that are a testimony not only inward states, human emotion and condition, but also to events.

Books like Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man witness to the legacy of the Holocaust, so that it becomes part of common consciousness.

The film Hiroshima mon amor, from the book by Marguerite Dumas, witnesses to the existential crisis of lovers who need to cling to one another after horror.

The South African poet, Mongane Wally Serote witnesses to the events of apartheid:

I want to look at what happened,

That done,

As silent as the roots of plants pierce the soil

I look at what happened…

When knives creep in and out of people

As day and night into time.

And the list could go on.

Extraordinary writing witnesses not only to historical or political events, but also to emotional states and human relationships.

3. Writers reconstitute the world

As people who bear witness to the human condition; witness to stories that would otherwise go unheard and to the possibilities that lie ahead, writers deal with how much we can achieve.

As Adrienne Rich puts it:

My heart is moved by all I cannot save: so much has been destroyed I have to cast my lot with those who age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.

This requires belief in freedom. By opening up new horizons through writing, writers take on enormous responsibility. Our writing shifts the perspective of readers and widens their choices as a result. Thought is a powerful thing.

4. Writers shape reality

What do we believe about reality? How do we conceive the nature of our existence and freedom?

None of us can transcend the facts of existence: we exist in a universe of physical laws and principles. Environment, language and culture shape us in complex ways. And to some extent we never become aware of all these influences or shake free of them.

But we are not reducible to those influences. Neither are we the roles we adopt; none of us is only a writer, a mother, a daughter, a musician. Only objects or deities (if they figure in your world view) are wholly one thing. God is God. A table is a table.

Human beings are complex and changeable. We are conscious, or should be if we are brave enough to stay awake in the world.

Humans can transcend certain ‘givens’ –

  • the class we’re born into
  • the racial stereotypes projected onto us
  • the social expectations around us are not who we are.

As Sartre claims, we have the ability to negate these expectations and to become anything.

And it’s not only philosophers who think like this. Increasingly, research suggests not only that we have plastic brains that can adapt and change, but also that our biology is more fluid than we conceived previously. (Studies in epigenetics are rapidly expanding our understanding of this, for example. Nessa Carey’s The Epigenetics Revolution)

This amount of freedom is terrifying and wonderful. It means that authentic living requires that we take our autonomy seriously.

It means that I am never identical with my current ‘self’, yet always responsible for sustaining, challenging and growing it.

It means I can’t hide behind phrases like ‘ this is the way I am’ or ‘it’s in my genes/my past experiences…’

If I choose to remain a certain way, it is a choice, and there is no lying to myself about that. Quoting Sartre:

You can always make something out of what you’ve been made into.

The inner world is a powerful place that changes how we experience the outer world.

Stories, poems and articles make their way into our subconscious and transform how we interact with the world and impact on it.

By being writers who take this seriously we open up a world of new thinking and new ways of being, for ourselves and for those who engage with our writing.

Writing is an awesome thing to do and we do it best when we become people who take our freedom and imagination seriously.

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From literary to historical to …

This is the End of the Story is, amongst other things, a literary novel for Teesside. Cassie and Miriam are immersed in the politics, weather, music and mores of the 70s; the culture and geography of 1970s industrialised Teesside, but they are also Quixotic – Cassie playing Sancho to Miriam; a ‘Quixote’ who pursues truth and justice even when the fight cannot be won, and who insists on the power of perception, imagination and dreams.

There are other literary and artistic influences in this first novel in the trilogy – from Dostoevsky to Madame Bovary; from Elisabeth Bourton de Trevino’s Casilda of the Rising Moon to the Canadian folk music of Gordon Lightfoot. The literary novel is a melting pot of ingredients, and so too is the historical novel, which A Remedy for All Things is, at least in part.

The last month of Attila József’s life is well documented and the ‘forradolam’, the ‘boiling over of the masses’ in the twelve days of uprising in 1956 has inspired many books, both fiction and non-fiction.

So once again there has been lots of research, this time involving not only delving into Cervantes, E.M. Forster and poets like Endre Ady as well as Attila József himself, but also into articles, interviews and works of non-fiction, from Thomas Kabdebo’s Attila József, Can you take on this awesome life? to Victor Sebestyen’s Twelve Days, Revolution 1956. All of the reading has been essential, but unlike 1970s Teesside, Budapest, in any era, was completely outside of my frame of reference.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATravelling there made a real difference, thanks to a generous grant from ACE, but even that would have been less effective without some key conversations with people who are part of the place. Conversations at the Hungarian House of Photography, and at the Attila József Museum were crucial. Similarly, meeting Lászlo Kunos, Director of Corvina Press, not only gave me a much more nuanced perspective on life in both 1950s and 1990s Budapest (something I wouldn’t have picked up from books or even from visiting merely as a tourist) but also helped me make key decisions about how my character, Catherine, thinks about Attila József’s final days and state of mind. And meeting the novelist and poet, Gábor Schein, again enriched my perspective on this remarkable city, which has been through so much, and yet is a relatively young city, with Pest in particular becoming populace only at the end of the nineteenth century.

There is an element of writing that is essentially solitary, especially working though draft after draft of a novel or sifting through other novels, essay, interviews, non-fiction works and newspaper reports to find exactly the right details. But there is another element that demands not only activity, but immersion. A Remedy for All Things is part literary novel, part historical novel, but above all it is a novel of characters – of people and of a city that lives and breathes and to write it has demanded that I share a tiny bit of that breath.

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An Extraordinary Tour

The six weeks of travelling and researching have been exceptional – discovering new places, meeting writers and publishers in Europe, particularly in Budapest, and having intense time to write completely away from work and from my normal environment have enabled me to put lots of creative pressure on the next novel, which follows on from This is the End of the Story. It takes place during the timespan of the first novel, during one month in 1993 (a month we don’t hear about within This is the End of the Story even though its last chapter is set in June, 1994). It follows the protagonist of the first novel, Catherine, and is set in the early days of post-Communist Hungary, specifically in Budapest, where Catherine is researching the poet Attila József for a novel based on his life.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut during her time there, her sense of confused identity comes back to haunt her. Having worked to establish her perception of reality as linear and quotidian, she begins to dream the life of a young woman imprisoned after the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. Moreover, in alternate chapters, this woman, Selene Solweig Virág, dreams Catherine’s life. Selene’s life is further complicated by a relationship she has on only one day in each of six successive years, a day when she slips through time to find herself with Attila József. (Whether the dreams — either Catherine’s or Selene’s — are ‘real’ and whether Selene (if she exists) actually moves into another time period or only imagines it as part of a stress breakdown in her life is of less concern than the interweaving of periods of political turmoil and personal perspectives on reality.)

It’s not a novel about time travel or reincarnation (is Catherine merely dreaming about Selene’s life or did she once live it?), but about alternative notions of identity as a metaphor that challenge insularity and the institutions that imagine they can crush people. Running under the narrative is an insistence that governments and power brokers cannot crush the soul of life and humanity and all that connects us. It’s also about alternative perspectives on time.

Einstein wrote that the ‘past, present and future are only an illusion’ and in Greek there are two words for time — Chronos is the everyday, linear sense, the time of clocks, but Kairos has a more qualitative sense — it is the right moment, the Now. In this vein, the existentialist philosopher, Kierkegaard, distinguished between living temporally and finitely and those rare moments when we suspend finite living and become aware of existing so that for an instant we are outside of time and ‘stand in relation to the eternal’. And Spinoza similarly talks of ‘timeless moments’, as John Berger points out in his brilliant book of radical essays, Hold Everything Dear. These are moments when the ordinary is made luminous, not in some showy fireworks-and-flashes way, but by providing a transcendent vision of the everyday so that eternity breaks into the present.

Such moments can be found in mediation, on a walk in a beautiful place, or simply in some unlooked for instant going about routine tasks and they can also be found in art and literature. Proust and Joyce both wrote about epiphany in this way and Proust’s notion of an involuntary memory containing the past has this sense of the eternal breaking in, of another kind of time that is qualitative and belongs to an eternal present. The best poetry contains this transcendence — as Berger points out, every pause in an Emily Dickinson poem is redolent with eternity.

The impulse to write something in which the transient and the contingent becomes one with the sublime and numinous, with all that connects us and all that takes us beyond the illusion of past, present and future, occurs constantly — and if anyone achieves it there will be nothing left to say. What more can be added to such epiphany? But, as exquisite and profound as some literature is, no one has yet taken us to this place of silence and so writers keep writing, keep circling the Kairos.

It’s something I’m striving to negotiate with in A Remedy for All Things — how do we make the life of poet who despaired enough to kill himself, the lives of those who took on an unwinnable fight in the Hungarian Uprising (many losing their lives), the life of a writer who struggles with personal loss and grief, the lives of anyone who resists living the life handed to them by institutions and powers, matter? One way is perhaps to use fiction and imagination to mess with the notion of linear time, assert with Cervantes’ Quixote that ‘The unreason of the world is more insane than any fiction’ and we will resist the unreasonable, limiting, conventional world in favour of timeless moments.

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Looking Backwards, Looking Forwards – On Writing a Trilogy

This is the End of the Story is a novel that germinated for over thirty-five years before it was ready to be written. Writing it was an act of memoOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAry and imagination in equal measure and it was a fascinating journey. It wasn’t until I went to Toledo to do some final research on Casilda, an 11th century Moorish princess who became a Christian saint, an antecedent for the protagonist Cassie (later Catherine), that I began to realise that it really wasn’t the end of the story, making the novel’s title all the more resonant, but rather was the first part of a trilogy.

I have a tendency not only to dream about my characters, but also to dream on behalf of my characters once I’m deep into the flow of a narrative. This is the End of the Story was no exception and I also began to dream a new character, somehow linked to Catherine, but not obviously so. All I knew about her at first was her odd name, Selene Solweig Virág, and that she Hungarian and in prison after the 1956 uprising.

It wasn’t much to go on, but, in addition to layering in details from what I found in Toledo, I had time to add a few tiny details that would forge links between the first and subsequent books and also to highlight objects that would carry forward a freight of memories for what might come next.

Writing the second book has been a very different experience. I’ve been constantly aware not only of the need to ensure that the A Remedy for All Things maintains continuity with The is the End of the Story, but also of how important it is to plant seeds that will come to fruition in For Hope is Always Born, the final book in the trilogy.

When I was a child I used to plait my hair and can remember learning to do the long braids for myself. Getting each section of hair even and straight so that the final plait would be neat and not pull on my scalp was a bit of an art, something that gradually became second nature. Writing a trilogy feels a bit like that and, like plaiting hair, there is also a degree of happenstance as well as planning. Some days a plait just knots, or one section of it is too thin and the whole thing twists unevenly. Other times it flows perfectly.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWriting the middle book, it wasn’t until I got to the second draft that I realised that the hand of Miriam pendant that Catherine wears after her visit to Toledo in search of Casilda could become a vital link between the characters in A Remedy for All Things. Catherine realises that Selene carries an identical talisman in Budapest in the late 1950s. Getting events to synchronise so that hamsa could be in the right place at the right time took lots of juggling with dates and characters from the 1920s to the 1990s across Europe, but the act of retrofitting allowed me to ‘discover’ a familial link that tightened the narrative and that I hadn’t previously thought of making. A wonderful piece of happenstance. The hamsa will have further importance in the third book, but it’s been easier to sew the seeds for that now that I’m aware of the possibilities.

Maintaining a Chekhovian cohesiveness to a narrative in which everything has a part to play, whether it is to create mood, authenticity, character or move on the story, feels much more complex with three novels to juggle, particularly as the whole narrative will range from the 1920s to the present, and take in England, Wales, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Spain and France along the way. Yet it’s an exciting and rewarding way to write, making me question every detail, how it might be used in future, what possibilities it opens up or shuts down.

In planning A Remedy for All Things I had one key character who I was certain would not make it out of this section of the narrative alive. I wrote the first draft that way and it was working. I worked on the second draft, adding scenes, filling out details, strengthening links between this novel and the previous one, setting up threads to be played out in the next and whilst the death scene changed it was still there. Then I discovered that if I allowed this character to live I could add another familial bond into a new strand that is planned for the third novel and that this would be much more convincing and also much more in keeping with the tone of strange events that underpin the story, raising questions about perception and the nature of reality, a vital theme in the trilogy. The problem was that if this character lives, then crucial events that needed to stay the same at the end of A Remedy for All Things couldn’t happen – the death set off an important chain reaction and without this catalyst my story might have been left hanging.

How was it solved? You’ll have to read the novel, of course, to find out, but I can reveal that I was able to keep the character alive AND have the chain reaction by introducing another ‘Chekhov’s gun’ – in this case a letter. So now I’m beginning to look forward to how that character will reappear in For Hope is Always Born.

I’ve just completed draft three of the middle novel and it’s taken three full workings to feel confident that the continuity is right with the first novel and that sufficient details are in place to give rise to the third novel, but there will be more drafts to follow in order to ensure that this novel is as rich and as tight as I can make it. I’m also hoping soon to do a full outline for the third novel so that I can once again revisit this pivotal middle narrative of the trilogy with an eye to detail …

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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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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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