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How to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves

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Writers can be cerebral creatures. By its nature, writing is sedentary and we spend a lot of time in our heads. But when the writing loses all sense of embodiment it becomes remote and ineffective. Writing in the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology Rosemarie Anderson notes:

Embodied writing seeks to reveal the lived experience of the body by portraying in words the finely textured experience of the body and evoking sympathetic resonance in readers

Our bodies matter. Despite being someone who will get so far into my own head that I forget to move or go to the bathroom when deep in flow, I also know that his has an impact on my writing, however subtle. When I write after doing yoga, adopt a better posture and get up between sections to stretch or walk, the writing changes.

So how do we become more holistic as writers?

Replace the dualistic model

To quote Rosemarie Anderson again:

Continuing to write in a Cartesian style seems no longer acceptable … Disembodied writing perpetuates the object-subject bifurcation between the world of our bodies and the world we inhabit.

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How to write historical fiction in the face of contested history

 

visigoth.jpegGoing over the details of my novel set in Toledo I revisited the museum of magic, set in a tenth century cave that was an Islamic dwelling during the time of Casilda, a Toledan princess-cum-saint, whose story weaves through the trilogy. Back in the city after two years, spending time checking my memories of places, has raised several questions of how to do justice to the historical threads in my writing.

Weaving story from fragments or overwhelm

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Much of the novel, For Hope is Always Born, takes place in the present, but a significant strand goes back to Moorish Spain. It’s a period that has proved difficult to research.

There’s a great deal of writing on the broad brushstrokes and there are certain characters who have captured imagination, like the slightly later El Cid. But there is a paucity of detail about ordinary daily lives, particularly in English. Despite the enormous amount of historical record across centuries and locations, it’s always the quotidian that is missing. Most history concerns the elites, whether of class or gender.

Internet searches on the history of this amazing tenth century home, with its two surviving hamsa images beside the slender entrance pillars, yielded nothing. I could only discover that had two-storeys, a well and courtyards. More ironically, two of Google’s top hits on this building were from blog posts I’d written myself on my last visit to Toledo.

At other points the problem has been in choosing the details to include. I’ve read several books on Islamic advances in learning, from alchemy to botany, from geometry to the best time and way to dig wells. It’s tempting as a writer to want to show off all this reading, but putting in too much detail is boring and distracting for a reader of story. The art is to get a sense of authenticity, to conjure the time and place with all the senses working, but not to let the skeleton of research show on the body of the narrative.

Weaving story from contradictory histories

Visigoth Museum, Toledo, Adam Craig

Where there are descriptions of social arrangements, the accounts differ widely.

Some historians view Moorish Spain as a golden age paradise. In these accounts there was universal education, for girls as well as boys; well-lit paved streets; multicultural scholarship, religious tolerance and a high standard of living. Such is the view of historians such as John G Jackson and Ivan van Sertima.

The controversial Cordovan princess, Wallada bint al-Mustaki, is a prime example. Her dates overlap with Casilda’s and she was similarly a daughter of one of the last Umayyad caliphs. A poet who inherited her fathers estate when he died without a male heir, she had a reputation for teaching poetry and literature to all and sundry. Criticised for her unconventional dress-style, including a refusal to wear a veil in public, and for her outspokenness, as well as for taking many lovers, Wallada epitomises a golden-age history.

Other historians view the Moors as barbarous invaders who destroyed an existing civilisation. This view accuses the Moors of stealing from Visigoth culture and taking credit for its advances. Dario Fernandez-Morera, for example, claims:

under Islam the art of the Visigoth capital decayed, as the conquerors wiped out the traces of Catholic grandeur.

Such historians seem much less concerned when the Catholic church later persecuted Jews or turned architecturally exquisite mosques and synagogues into churches.

I hope you will read on at Medium – where you can also ‘clap’ and leave feedback. Thank you for reading.

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How to use the fascinating twists of writing process

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Mezquita Bab al-Mardum, Toledo – Adam Craig

I’m currently writing book 3 of the Casilda Trilogy.

Through the lives of Catherine, Selene and Miriam, the Casilda Trilogy explores the distance between myth and reality: the myths we live in, whether of personal fantasy, dreams or the political realities that exert stresses on individual lives. What is the nature of truth and where do we find it?”

It began with This is the End of the Story

Belief is Cassie’s gift, so much so that she believes herself to be whoever those in her life tell her she is — Cassie, Kat, Kitty, even Casilda, as her friend Miriam insists, an 11th century Muslim princess from Toledo who later became a Catholic saint.

Bound together by Miriam’s extraordinary internal world, Cassie’s belief and a traumatic incident on a beach, Cassie’s loyalty only strains when an act of betrayal propels her towards Liam, also waiting to tell Cassie who she really is.

But Cassie may be more resourceful than either Miriam or Liam imagine. And when she eventually visits Toledo, tracking down places where Casilda might have walked, is this the end of the story?

Exploring how one person might support the fantasy life of another, the novel is in Quixotic tradition. 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.

Like Don Quixote, the novel is in two parts. Part I has 8 main chapters interleaved by vignettes. The chapters follow Cassie (who eventually reclaims her full name, Catherine) and Miriam, both a coming of age narrative and an exploration of identity. The vignettes give insight into the political and cultural context of the story, the end of the 1970s in industrial Teesside.

Part II revisits and finished the story from Catherine’s perhaps unreliable viewpoint. Looking back, she is trying to make the facts as she sees them fit the story as she felt it.

Writing it, the process was one of creative chaos. At the core was a story I had lived with for thirty years, but I wrote the scenes rather as memory works — via all kinds of random associations and circuitous routes.

Piecing the individual scenes together was an extraordinary undertaking. I knew it would not be a linear novel, but how the parts fitted together was crucial so that the right clues came at the right times. And to ensure the reader could navigate the time switches. The process felt sometimes like making Frankenstein’s monster and getting the head under the armpit. It took several attempts, but suddenly it fell into place.

In addition to mirroring themes and structure in Quixote, I also wanted to work in allusions to Dostoevsky’s journals, as one of the main characters suffers a similar form of epilepsy.

And I added a further cultural allusion in the chapter titles. Cassie (Catherine) is somewhat out of step with her context. She doesn’t listen to the popular music of the day. She’s not much of a ‘joiner’. I signalled this by using song names from a Canadian folk singer who other teenagers weren’t following at the time, but Cassie was. Each title and the song it refers to says something about the events of the chapter.

The other literary allusion of this book is Elizabeth Borton de Trevino’s Casilda of the Rising Moon. Cassie’s close (and strange, Quixotic) friend, Miriam, is certain that the two of them have lived before, most notably as Casilda, an 11th century Moorish princess of Toledo, and Ben Haddaj, apparently a Muslim prince of Zaragoza. Casilda converted to Christianity and was later beatified and finally canonised.

In her life she became a hermit living near healing springs in the Castilian mountains and several miracles were attributed to her. Trevino’s children’s book, which I read in the 70s, is a marvellous sweeping romance that treats the Muslim, Christian and Jewish populations of Moorish Spain with great sympathy. It’s a story that had stayed with me and fascinated, but I wanted to write a more mystical and complex Casilda.

In the first book of the trilogy, the notion that Cassie and Casilda might be the same person across a century of history is ambiguous, but I dipped into Casilda’s story and it was a delight to do some research in Toledo. There is little trace of her, but there is a cave house from her time and a beautiful tiny mosque (later a church), Mesquita de Bab al-Mardum.

If this sounds complicated, I wanted the end result to be accessible and the reviews seem to support that I managed this. It was a lot of fun to write and the freedom to simply write scenes in any order and worry about how they fitted the shape later was liberating.

It moves on to A Remedy for All Things

I hope you will read the rest of the post on Medium – the trilogy ends with For Hope is Always Born and the post discusses the challenges of writing  trilogy, the power of place and objects in writing and moving on from the trilogy… Thank you for reading and for your support here and on Medium.

Becoming a Different Story

I’m currently working on a book on writing and the creative life and looking to connect with others, thinking about the power of story. If you’d like my 9-chapter eBook on writing and the writing life sign up to my email list or just feel free to continue the conversation.

 

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The Objects that Speak of Us

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Part 5 on writing a novel trilogy

Researching A Remedy for All Things in Budapest, I was been aware how vital artefacts can be in communicating something about a person. The thought struck me on a walk along the Danube, confronted by a simple and heart-breaking installation along the bank — pairs of shoes in memory of Jewish citizens herded to the river in 1944 and 1945. There they were 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.

The imprint on objects

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 bears 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. 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 went into a scene when the Attila of my novel 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.

Objects as connection

picture by Adam Craig

And other objects assumed even greater importance in communicating themes through the novel. Catherine wears a small necklace that first appeared in This is the End of the Story. She find is by her bed when she is in Toledo 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 Catherine’s link back to Miriam and to a time of a more visionary sense of the world. And later it also becomes a link to Selene, who, imprisoned at the end of the 1950s, seems to be in possession of the same talisman, carefully hidden.

… I hope you’ll read on over at Medium – where you can also ‘clap’ for the post. Thank you for reading and for your support.

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Of Terror, Memory and Controversy

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Part 4 on Writing a novel trilogy

Writing in an unfamiliar place where the language is impenetrable (I’ve mastered ‘thank you’ — kösönöm) gave me a huge amount to process. But it also gave the second, third and fourth drafts of the novel much richer in detail and atmosphere.

Information is never neutral and, as an outsider, I had a lot of sifting to do, particularly when we 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 short time, this fascist national socialist party believed in racial purity.

It benefited when the Germans occupied Hungary in 1944 after losing patience with their allies for being too moderate. Within a year the death toll and deportation of Jews, Romanies and other ‘undesirables’ soared, with atrocities mounting.

After 1945 the Soviet regime took over the building. It became home to the communist secret police, the AVH, and the nerve centre of purges and terror campaigns against the population.

In my novel, Selene is held in the basement cells of this building, where many were tortured, sometimes dying of their injuries. It was somewhere I wanted to visit, because it’s part of the story. But it’s a controversial ‘museum’ as 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 (use) a dangerous strategy: the idea of … ‘collective memory’ is basically a denial of any rational way of obtaining knowledge about the past.

Memory is a slippery concept. I wouldn’t wholly follow Apor’s argument. Memory can be 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 position in which memory is neither neither the same as or opposed to to historical ‘fact’.

photo by Adam Craig

But cultural tourist sites that are laden with political stances are difficult places to interpret. Moreover, the House of Terror is a site of political controversy. Its wholesale backing by the right-wing prime minister Viktor Orbán makes it suspect. This is especially so given that its opening was during an election period in which the socialist opposition was likened to the extreme Soviet past. So the place became a warning to voters not to vote socialist.

The house claims to examine both Nazi and Communist atrocities, but the balance is much more skewed to room after room on the evils of Communism. The terror and suffering in that era was considerable, but it is not the whole picture. And Jewish communities have objected that in concentrating on the Soviet era the Holocaust is down-played. (Tamara Rátz, ‘Interpretation in the House of Terror, Budapest’ in Cultural Tourism in a Changing World, Melanie K Smith & Mike Robinson)

Further problems are that the exhibit makes it appear that there was no ‘normal, daily life’ in Hungary in the Communist era. And it locates ‘evil’ as the ‘other’. It’s true that the names and photographs of those who collaborated with the two regimes are on a ‘wall of victimisers’. But this is also controversial given that we don’t know the level or context of involvement from names and photographs. And it’s contentious for a heritage site to set itself up as judge and jury. But the sense that ‘evil’ came from outside the indigenous culture nonetheless prevails.

Experiencing the museum was an interesting way to these controversies and questions. But most of all the visit was most powerful in the largely empty basement cells. The atmosphere there was chilling and inhumane. The horror was palpable without need of interpretation boards or video screens.

It gave me a great deal to think about as I wrote the novel. In A Remedy for All Things terror is not a spectacle, but an everyday fear for one of my three main characters.

The protagonist, Catherine, in Budapest to research the life of poet, Attila József, finds herself dreaming the life of Selene. A young woman who survived a Jewish ghetto during the War and is in prison after the 1956 Uprising against the Communist regime.

This is how it begins: …

I’d be delighted if you’d like to read on over on Medium and, while you there, please hold down those tiny hands till the number can’t rise any more 🙂 Thank you!

 

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Draft after Draft after …

I’m endlessly fascinated by how various writing process can be between one writer and the next, but however idiosyncratic these processes might be there are certain stages that have to be negotiated. It has to begin with ideas. For me, these often come from dreams or from the trance-like state that walking can induce – the link between walking and writing, the process of flaneurs like Baudelaire and Benjamin makes complete sense to me. These ideas begin to assume more and more shape – notes and jottings, bits of research, character sketches, hopes of something amazing and doubts that it is ever going to take shape.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt this stage, some of it starts to form. Maybe you write a timeline. Perhaps you write chapter summaries. You might be someone who writes detailed character sketches or even has a list of questions to ask each character. For me, it’s all about research at this stage. I look up the weather of the time and place I’m writing about. I research the politics, the social climate, the architecture of the streets, the landscape, the local food, historical characters who might turn up in the novel. Before beginning to write This is the End of the Story I read several academic tomes on Don Quixote and several novels that has a Quixotic structure. For the current novel, A Remedy for All Things, I read everything I can find about Attila and all of his poetry that’s in English translation. I also unearthed several interviews with Attila’s family members and with the sculptor who made the most famous statue of him. Then I read several books about the 1956 Hungarian Uprising and as much as I could find about Budapest in the early 90s. From these copious notes some rough sketches of actual story began to be written and the opening, which had been in my head since the first dreams of my new protagonist, Selene.

From the mass of dreams, ideas, characters, places and research notes, something new has to emerge. Writing This is the End of the Story, I had several vivid incidents that needed to be written. I had them clearly in my head so I didn’t outline anything and I didn’t think about what order to write them in. Each piece emerged and only later did I order and re-order and then go over the whole to make sure the way they fitted together was consistent, even though the narrative was non-linear.

Writing A Remedy for All Things has been completely different. I’m juggling three characters each in different time periods – 1937, 1959 (with flash backs to 1952-9) and 1993. What unites them is that the two main characters, Catherine (Cassie from This is the End of the Story) and Selene are dreaming each other’s lives on successive days in November to early December, days that were the last 28 of Attila József’s life. So the dates impose an essential framework on what would otherwise be a chaotic narrative and each date has two short chapters – one in 1993, one in 1959. With this framework it seemed sensible to outline early so I wrote summaries of each chapter and this enabled me to wrangle a sprawling plot into something manageable and accessible. I don’t believe there is a one size fits all way to write a novel, but certain stories let us know what they need – form and content begin to match if we attend to the material we’re working with.

In this case, with an outline in place, I wrote a first full draft. It was full of typos and inconsistencies. It was too obviously researched at some points (it’s skeleton showing through its skin), but lacking in detail at others. The prose was clunky and some of the chapters were little more than bridging passages, but I had a whole novel. It was time to get a clearer vision of what I might be working towards and to do that demanded that I stop for a while.

With the constant programme editing, events to organise for Cinnamon Press and admin to keep the press running, taking time off from my own writing isn’t difficult. Sometimes it’s hard to find the time to write at all, which is why having writing blocks courtesy of the Arts Council, has been such a blessing with this novel. But whether we have scraps of time or luxurious amounts of it, there are interludes when we need to stop and stand back. Time to get some distance from the first intensely immersive process. Time to dream and wander again. For a week or a month or however long you need (but not so long that it becomes remote from you), let it rest. Don’t read it and don’t let anyone else read it. It’s too early in the process and too vulnerable to being derailed at this stage. (If you have a trusted reader or a mentor, bounce ideas off them, talk in broad terms, get ideas about overall process, get encouragement and support, but don’t second guess the fragile first draft just yet).

I did keep reading everything I could find about Budapest in the right periods while I was letting the first draft settle. And I also had fascinating conversations about the place and events, about Attila József’s poetry and about some of the bigger ideas I was exploring, but I didn’t open the files.

I started the second draft once I knew I was going to be able to visit Budapest to hone the research and really bring the book to life. My aim was to revise the narrative so that any thin passages were fleshed out, so that the research was carried by story, dialogue and character, rather than cluttering the surface. I wanted to improve the prose, kill any darlings, rid the story of inconsistencies, smooth the pacing and keep the conflicts tense. The second draft is a good point to address any structural issues, and for me a key issue was how to use particular objects that revealed connections not only in this novel, but also pointed back to the first novel and potentially forward to the next, For Hope is Always Born.

When I finished the second draft, not long after arriving in Budapest, I immediately went back to the beginning and started editing again. The third draft saw a mixture of changes. Having gone through the structural issues I could concentrate on finer details. But, being in the place where the novel is set and with access to generous people who’d lived through some of what I was writing about and knew Attila Joszef’s work so much more deeply in its original language, also meant I could revisit some of the key ideas. In the third draft I completely changed my mind about one of the most pivotal events of the book, thanks to a conversation with László Kúnos of Corvina Publishers. And I was able to add details about József’s life and about the places that Selene would have known only because I was able to visit important museums and sites and talk to people.

The fourth draft was a thorough edit of all of this, again reading for consistency as well as for every stray comma, typo or missing word. Drafts two, three and four came hard on the heels of each other because I had an intense time set aside to work in Hungary, but there were breaks, even if just for a day, and lots of conversations, as well as long walks and plenty more dreams to fuel the process.

And then I came home, got back into work and didn’t look at the manuscript for several weeks. Another rest is no bad thing and having worked on redrafting, editing and editing again, it was useful to get some distance. The hardest work to see objectively is always our own. I can spot tics and flaws in other people’s writing that I’m oblivious to in my own. If you get to this stage and want another view on the whole thing now is a good time to hand over to a trusted reader or work with mentor.

After all of this, it’s time to hone. This is where I am now – going over every chapter very slowly, realising that even in a fifth draft, there are typos, missing punctuation, phrases that don’t quite work, some glaring bits of overwriting. I’m in the last stages of honing, maybe a week to go and then it can go off for a full overhaul by an objective and very trusted reader.

When it comes back from that, I’ll be onto the final draft (or drafts) and then it will begin the editing process ready for publication. And, of course, the last stages of writing are only the first stages of having a book that needs to make its way into the world … a whole other process.

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Emerging from the Rapture

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Kafka apparently had a large sign over his desk that said: WAIT. It’s good advice – putting a novel away and coming back to it with fresh eyes makes a huge difference. So, having worried about the hiatus in writing after returning from Budapest, I’m now glad of having taken that space and I’m slowly making my way through the final draft, amazed to find that, despite thinking that draft three was almost ready to go, there are a myriad tiny details to deal with as I go.

What is interesting in this read-through, is that the book feels like it arrived in the universe from who-knows-where, with very little reference to anything I did to make it happen. I’ve been talking to a writer friend who feels the same about her poetry pamphlet coming out next year – wondering where it all came from and did she really write it. It’s a sensation that seems common among writers. But what is it that makes us feel that our own writing simply happened, that we can hardly reconstruct the process in retrospect?

While I was putting together a writing workshop today, it occurred to me that this sensation of discontinuity is related to what John Berger recognised when he talked about writers as witnesses. When we write, we become porous to other places, other lives. If the writing is working, we are totally immersed in a process that is ‘other’ so that we emerge into the quotidian blinking and surprised. Virginia Woolf described writing as rapture and I’ve heard poets, when asked why they write, say they write for the trance.

No wonder we have to wait. Having been in a dreamlike-world of our own creation, we surface into a different atmosphere – one in which every comma and space has to be right; in which every sentence has to be weighed and measured in case it is found wanting. It’s a very different aspect of the writing process and it needs a different kind of concentration and attention, one that is certainly assisted by having taken some time away from the novel after the initial magical process of writing in Budapest.

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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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Saying Goodbye to Attila József

We’ve eaten a couple of times at a local restaurant that takes enormous pride in its food and service (Kispiac) and went there for our last evening meal before leaving Budapest. The owner asked us about our time in Budapest and whether we’d like to return. Just before we left, he came out with a bottle of Hungarian sparkling tokaji as a going away gift. Whilst Hungarians are reserved, we’ve also found them helpful and generous – I can’t imagine that kind of gesture from a London restaurant after a couple of visits.

Budapest is an extraordinary place – there’s a quiet kindness in so many people – unshowy, but vital. There’s also deep melancholy here – a history replete with suffering and ongoing political corruption and extremism. It’s a place where beautiful Art Nouveau buildings are sometimes fading and uncared for, where architectural gems are so in need of restoration that chunks of masonry fall into the street (we’ve seen two passers-by nearly felled by stone falling from peeling facades in just a few weeks). And yet there’s also pride in good service and good food, in art and architecture, in just being humane.

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When I arrived, one of the themes in my novel was the debate over whether Attila József committed suicide or died in a tragic accident. The preponderance of opinion has always been that his death was by suicide, but I initially wanted to leave the question open, to stay with the ambiguity. A conversation with László Kúnos of Corvina Press convinced me otherwise and, sad as it is to finally believe that this exceptional man chose to kill himself, the more I read the poetry and biographies and think about this extraordinary poet, the more I realise that there is an internal logic to the life and death.

This is a scene when I’ve explored this in the novel:

She walks back slowly. She will go to the place where he wrote when editing the magazine, Beautiful Word, another day, but the statue on the Danube near the Parliament building is only a short detour on the route to her apartment.

József sits, coat thrown down beside him, hat in his hand, watching the river, the epitome of contemplation and lament. He looks as though he’d spent the day walking across this city searching for something, Catherine thinks. The lines from ‘By the Danube’ are in a facsimile of József’s handwriting: Mintha szivembôl folyt volna tova Zavaros, bölcs és nagy volt a DunaAs if it flowed straight from my heart / Troubled, wise and great was the Danube.

How was it that Székely translated those lines? Catherine asks the statue.

As if my own heart had opened its gate:

The Danube was turbulent, wise and great.

She thinks of the conversation with Margit and András, how a thing mutates between languages, but even in one language how every action, every nuance is open to interpretation.

Catherine sits on the bottom step beneath Attila, looking towards the Danube with him. When she begins to feel stiff and colder she walks towards the figure, touches his hand.

There is such melancholy here, she tells him. Suicide seems to be everywhere, your language is unlike any neighbouring country’s, your borders have changed, to say there has been one too many invasion is an understatement and even your national anthem talks of pity and sorrow. So much sadness and I have endless questions for you that you can’t answer. Did you kill yourself? I’m minded to agree with Margit and András that you did. Why didn’t you take another route? And the strangest question of all — Did you know a woman called Selene Solweig Virág?

After our final dinner at Kispiac, we walked to the Danube, sat by Attila’s statue and read some of his poetry, including ’By the Danube’. I very much hope it’s au revoir, and not goodbye, but until next time in Budapest …

By the Danube

1.

As I sat on the bottom step of the wharf,
A melon-rind flowed by with the current;
Wrapped in my fate I hardly heard the chatter
Of the surface, while the deep was silent.
As if my own heart had opened its gate:
The Danube was turbulent, wise and great.

Like a man’s muscles when hard at his toil,
Hammering, digging, leaning on the spade,
So bulged and relaxed and contracted again
Each single movement, each and every wave.
It rocked me like my mother for a time
And washed and washed the city’s filth and grime.

And the rain began to fall but then it stopped
Just as if it couldn’t have mattered less,
And like one watching the long rain from a cave,
I gazed away into the nothingness.
Like grey, endless rain from the skies overcast,
So fell drably all that was bright: the past.

But the Danube flowed on. And the sprightly waves
In playful gaiety laughed at me again,
Like a child on his prolific mother’s knee,
While other thoughts were racing through her brain.
They trembled in Time’s flow and in its wake,
Like in a graveyard tottering tomb-stones shake.
2.

I am he who for a hundred thousand year
Has gazed on what he now sees the first time.
One brief moment and, fulfilled, all time appears
In a hundred thousand forbears’ eyes and mine.

I see what they could not for their daily toil,
Killing, kissing as duty dictated,
And they, who have descended into matter,
See what I do not, if truth be stated.

We know of each other like sorrow and joy,
Theirs is the present and mine is the past;
We write a poem, they’re holding my pencil
And I feel them and recall them at last.
3.

My mother was Cumanian, my father
Half-Szekler, half-Rumanian or whole.
From my mother’s lips sweet was every morsel,
And from my father’s lips the truth was gold.
When I stir, they are embracing each other;
It makes me sad. This is mortality.
This, too, I am made of. And I hear their words:
“Just wait till we are gone…” they speak to me.

So their words speak to me for now they am I,
Despite my weaknesses this makes me strong.
For I am more than most, back to the first cell
To every ancestor I still belong.
I am the Forbear who split and multiplied,
Shaped my father and mother into whole,
My father and mother then in turn divide
And so I have become one single soul.

I am the world, all that is past exists:
Men are fighting men with renewed anguish.
Dead conquerors ride to victory with me
And I feel the torment of the vanquished.
Árpád and Zalán, Werböczi and Dózsa,
Turks, and Tartars, Slovaks, Rumanians
Fill my heart which owes this past a calm future
As our great debt, today’s Hungarians.

I want to work. For it is battle enough
Having a past such as this to confess.
In the Danube’s waves past, present and future
Are all-embracing in a soft caress.
The great battle which our ancestors once fought
Resolves into peace through the memories,
And to settle at last our communal affairs
Remains our task and none too small it is.

Translated by John Székely

 

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