Character is 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 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.
Where we are is who we are
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 issues that she has to face in forming any sense of identity.
Cassie shares my own background, though fictionalised. But memory is a tricky thing so I still found myself doing lots of research — songs I thought I’d heard; fashions and news items. 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 major 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 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 travelled to Toledo that I felt confident of this part of the writing.
When I stood in a tiny mosque that Casilda might have stood in 900 years earlier, or visited a tenth century Islamic cave-house, I felt a sense of place that I couldn’t experienced from books.
One of Cinnamon Press’s novelists, Landeg White. who passed away at the end of 2017, was someone who knew a great deal about ‘place’ and the writing of place. He remarked that going to a place to do in situ research was ‘absolutely necessary’. He was re-reading George Eliot’s Romola at the time, and admiring the way she took the trouble to find out things instead of making it all up.
Take a scrap of paper and answer that question — don’t think about it too much, simply respond — Why do you write?
There are so many reasons: to bear witness; to tell stories; for the trance; because you have to… If you have ‘to get rich’ you might be in the wrong place (not that it can’t happen, but generally money is better as an offshoot than a direct aim). In short, there are many great reasons for writing.
Asked by Geoff Dyer what he saw as the ‘job of his life’ John Berger said”
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 witnessing involves total immersion and openness to other people and to other places.
Finding the rapture:
In Our Faces, Our Hearts, Brief as Photos, Berger describes one of those luminous moments when an ordinary place takes on an 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 in an extraordinary way. 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.
The question for many writers is how to get to the ‘rapture’ without having to go by way of resistance. Some lucky people never have a problem but many will recognise this from Vladimir Nabokov:
Just when the author sits down to write, ‘the monster of grim commonsense’ will lumber up the steps to whine that the book is not for the general public, that the book will never — And right then, just before it blurts out the words,– commonsense must be shot dead.
So begin by shooting common sense dead and taking your imaginations off-guard.
The painter Paula Rego pointed out the importance of the ‘play’ element in her work. In writing we can benefit from ‘playing with language’, which permits us to relax our hold on imagination and memory. It lessens the pressure to produce a finished piece and we are more likely to catch that ‘peripheral vision’. This sense of play can also prevent the personal critic in our head from intervening, Too often this voice sits on out shoulder, frowning and muttering .
Chance and ‘the random’ take us to unpredictable places and enable different narratives. Working with chance allows the writer to challenge her unconscious assumptions about what a piece of writing ‘should be’. It also challenges the reader’s unconscious assumptions. Chance leads to surprise, revelation, the challenge of paradox and the springs of the imagination. It facilitates ways of finding subject, atmosphere and voice, and of realising the imaginative into life. Using random prompts helps to break down the chaos of possibility.
Think about these prompts and write — keep going even if you are writing the same sentence over and over or what seems to be nonsense.
She watches her sleep …
She remembers feet on white sand …
How long ago was it that …
Today they climb to the top …
sweat snakes down her face, she is paler with each second …
Even when we find the right headspace, the next question will be about the kind of writing you want to do. Writing involves making a lot of decisions…
Making it real
Understand that you can have in your writing no qualities which you do not honestly entertain in yourself.
Walt Whitman in his journal.
The adage ‘write what you know’ is often too simplistic. Not all writing is confessional or springs from the life we’ve lived. Cormac McCarthy hasn’t lived in early twentieth century America or a post-apocalyptic society. Nonetheless, he writes about both. He write as convincingly as Hemingway writes about war, which he did live through. Both are writing what they ‘know’, in the sense that the work is authentic. It reflects their passions, their values, the way they perceive and relate to the world.
If we care about what we are writing, then we owe it to the characters and places we are witnessing to, to ensure the writing is as polished as possible. ur writing will become: precise, sensory and take the reader into the moment we are evoking.
This is exactly what happens in the description in chapter 2 of The Great Gatsby of a poverty stricken urban area:
This is a valley of ashes — a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of ash-grey men, who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of grey cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-grey men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight. … The valley of ashes is bounded on one side by a small foul river, and, when the drawbridge is up to let barges through, the passengers on waiting trains can stare at the dismal scene for as long as half an hour.
Similarly, in my novel, This is the End of the Story the politics, weather, music are major influences that build the picture of a certain kind of reality.
Writing about Place
Even if you are working from the mind’s eye, you must keep your senses open — observe, be precise.
Chekhov puts it like this:
Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.. ur writing will become: precise, sensory and take the reader into the moment we are evoking.
We write one true sentence and then the next true sentence. Every detail counts.
Be wary of cluttering your writing with adjectives and adverbs. Hone them back — use them with care and precision. And cut out the qualifiers — kind of, sort of, just, very, really — they do no work — somehow, suddenly… follow close behind — nothing happens ‘somehow’.
People come in context — think of a grandmother or favourite aunt — you will think of them in a place, most likely. Places tell us about character — Gatsby’s ridiculous ice-cream coloured mansion. Don’t do the lazy announcement thing — ‘Manchester, 1977, a dark and gloomy night in a terraced house…’
Try this exercise about a place that reflects a person. You might not mention the person at all in the writing and they don’t need to make an appearance. The person can be real or fictional:
First choose your person. Make a few notes about them, think of the type of place that would reflect that character — it might be a whole house or a room, it might be a tent or an open field, a workplace or a boat…
Now describe the place in the present tense — make the description precise and visual, but don’t forget the other senses.
Make every line like a photographic frame — remember, ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.’
Keep in mind that in writing about your place, you are writing about something you are not saying directly about your character, but you are pointing to.
Cormac McCarthy’s opening of Suttree is a fantastic example.
Dear friend now in the dusty clockless hours of the town when the streets lie black and steaming in the wake of the watertrucks and now when the drunk and the homeless have washed up in the lee of walls in alleys or abandoned lots and cats go forth highshouldered and lean in the grim perimeters about, now in these sootblacked brick or cobbled corridors where lightwire shadows make a gothic harp of cellar doors no soul shall walk save you.
Get into the habit of making notes about places and make every sense work overtime so that you begin to build place portraits the way a painter might. Every detail counts. You won’t use them all, but you’ll start writing more authentic settings. Put your characters into them to see how they react there, see where they fit and where they don’t fit.
Place as a Reflection of Character
Writing about place is powerful because places reflect character. At its most acute the theory of pathetic fallacy gives emotions to place and weather, as we see in Shakespeare’s King Lear:
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow! You cataracts and hurricanes, spout Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks! You sulfurous and thought-executing fires, Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts, Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder, Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ th’ world, Crack nature’s molds, all germens spill at once That make ingrateful man!
Similarly, the opening of Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist features a violent rain storm that represents the dysfunction in the lives of Sarah and Macon.
When we write about places, it isn’t mere adornment — it isn’t only about adding description. The places in which we set our stories help to define our characters and events. A good sense of place makes a story real and authentic.
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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 memory 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.
Writing 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 …
The romantic notion of café culture, of places where writers and artists meet, where they can sit for hours over one cup of coffee lost in their writing, is one that holds a lot of attraction. But the reality is often rather different. I’ve loved some of the cafés I’ve visited in Paris, particularly a little tearoom on the Isle Saint-Louis, La Charlotte de L’Isle, which does wonderful hot chocolate and is friendly and unhurried, yet I’ve never written more than a few notes there. In Toledo, researching scenes for This is the End of the Story, we found a tiny bar that did superb coffee in the daytime and had lovely staff. We could sit comfortably with one coffee for a very long time, but the music whilst eclectic — ranging from funk to jazz — somehow wasn’t conducive to writing. Bruges was exquisitely beautiful, but the cafés seemed keen to keep customers moving at a brisk rate and Lisbon felt similar, and had the added complication of generally loud music with a heavy beat, though we passed through so quickly that perhaps there are many café gems we didn’t discover.
Last year in Prague, the dream café seemed closer to existing. The tiny ‘Bakeshop’ just off Mala Strana, near the wonderful Kafka Museum, did great breakfast pastries, coffee and chocolate, and was completely unhurried despite having only two tiny tables plus a little side counter with a couple of stools. And, on the riverfront, the Bella Vida Café was full of bookcases with old books, wonderfully mismatched old furniture, and a relaxed atmosphere that encouraged lingering with a book to read or something to write. If there was music, it wasn’t intrusive, but such a lovely place was popular and we couldn’t always find a seat.
So we came to Budapest thinking, again, how lovely it would be to have a place to write where we could also take in the local culture, rather than closeting ourselves away in an apartment, but also not expecting to find the place that by now had become an unrealistic idyll. And we were, happily, wrong.
Large portions of A Remedy for All Things have been written at a local café, Póharszék. Within a couple of visits the lovely staff have started preparing our order as we walk in, a large bottle of water and two black coffees, that last us for hours before topping up. Occasionally, there’s a glass of wine in the early evening or a slice of quiche at lunchtime and the staff are slowly educating us in Hungarian wines to take home to go with dinner. There’s relatively quiet music inside, but the tables along the pavement have become ‘home’, where I can immerse myself for hours in the writing while Adam people-watches, makes notes and turns them into compelling stories of character and place.
We haven’t quite taken up residence at Póharszék. We’ve had trips to museums, to meet a Budapest publisher who helped fill in lots of details about life in the 50s and 90s, to an artists’ town along the river and we’ve walked and walked, or occasionally taken trams, all across the city. But most days we manage some time here and some days, great stretches of time. Other regulars nod and smile to us now; we know several local dogs and have had a fascinating conversation with an American screenwriter working in Budapest on a TV series with a Welsh actor.
We’ve even added another couple of writing venues to our itinerary — Csiga is a high-ceilinged, larger café in District VIII, a district with a reputation for being run-down and rough, but the edge of it is also attracting students and artists. Csiga is slow service, in the sense of being deliberately unhurried and laid back, an interesting place to gather characters and the gentle music is quiet enough not to interfere with the writing. Even better is Massolit Bookshop Café in District VII, the Jewish district. It’s cozy and quirky, full of English-language books and attracts lots of students, studying hard, fuelled by cookies, coffees and pastries. The music is kept very low and there’s no rush to leave. When we visited, one student was deep inside revision for an exam and another was working on watercolour sketches.
So it’s in Budapest — not Paris, the City of Lights, with its reputation for café culture, nor Prague, a fairy-tale full of architectural gems and the spirit of Kafka in it’s mythic streets — that we have found the most homely and welcoming cafés that are conducive not only to creativity, but to chance meetings and a world of observations. Very quickly after arriving in Budapest, I was struck by the sense of melancholy here and soon found that I wasn’t alone in feeling that. There’s not a great deal of effusiveness here, but there is graciousness and helpfulness and, as we visit particular places more than once, especially Póharszék, a sense that behind the reserve, the welcome is genuine and not merely a sales pitch.
Finding a place to work that is embedded in the culture of a few blocks with regular patrons has made us feel much more connected to this place for a few short weeks and connection is at the heart of any writing practice.
In This is the End of the Story, Catherine seems to establish an identity that will, with a measure of flexibility, see her through life. But in A Remedy for All Things, when events unravel, Catherine revisits events in the previous novel and becomes less confident of the ‘normalcy’ and new relationships she has tried to re-establish as she questions the boundaries between fact and fiction and re-asses issues of perception and identity.
But the internal drama happens in a context. In the first novel the politics and culture of 70s Teesside is as much an omnipresent pressure as Miriam’s epilepsy and Cassie’s (Catherine’s) willingness to believe and be defined by others. So, in this one, questions of meaning and identity are impacted not personal contexts (including mental health issues and neurological conditions such as migraine and aura), but also by political events that sweep individuals along.
I grew up in Teesside in the 70s so the research was heavily reliant on memory backed up with lots of Internet fact checking. (It’s amazing what memory invents and interchanges.) I feel like Catherine is someone I know. I’ve lived with her for a few years now. I dream her dreams. But not only have her problems changed and become more complex, but they are located in an unfamiliar place.
I know of excellent novels that are set in places that the author has never visited. Any historical novel of necessity has an element of this since even if we can visit the historic houses and sites, see artefacts, travel to the places, read the histories, we can’t go back in time. But some authors can convince with research alone write novels as though they had lived in Mongolia when what they’ve actually done is read widely and surf the net endlessly. We live in a world of information – a great deal of it spurious, but much of it rich. In addition to endless travel guides and blogs, books in translation, films with subtitles, websites for even the smallest locations and a plethero of information on cultural mores, we also have Google Earth and Maps to allow us to walk (virtually) around far away cities at the click of a mouse. So why travel?
My current novel has two characters from Budapest – the poet Attila Jozsef in the 30s and a young woman in prison after the 56 Uprising. Before arriving in Budapest I read everything I could find on Attila Jozsef – all the poetry that’s translated into English, every website I could find (including those in Hungarian that I could persuade Google to ‘translate’ for me) and a biography that took some tracking down. I read books about the 1956 Uprising, both novels and non-fiction and others about wartime experiences in Budapest (even though this was background rather than part of the timeline of my novel). I found locations and walked the streets on my computer. I wrote the 55 chapters in outline and then, using the research, expanded each outline into a full chapter. I wrote a great deal on trains in the last week travelling from Paris to Budapest (a journey that both of my Hungarian characters made) and finished a first full draft of the novel not long after arriving here.
It’s very much a ‘first draft’ and as I settle into this unfamiliar place I’m more and more convinced of the need to experience as much as humanly possible as part of creative practice. My research left me in no doubt of the enormity of suffering that Hungary has experienced with the twentieth century seeing atrocities from both the Arrow Cross and the Communist regime. But to see buildings still scarred by bullet holes; to see memorials at the Great Synagogue, bombed by the Arrow Cross, taken over as a German Radio station in WW2 and then hemmed into a ghetto, where thousands died of cold and starvation, their bodies piled in the synagogue garden; to eat the local food; hear the language; begin to feel something of the character of the place and people … all of this can only be done in the flesh.
The last two mornings I’ve begun to do second drafts of the early chapters and also to add in details to key scenes across the novel that have arisen from visiting sites in Budapest. On our first day we walked to the river to the statue of Attila Jozsef, cut flung aside, huge and brooding, a facsimile of lines from a poem beneath him on the steps:
Mintha szivembôl folyt volna tova Zavaros,
bölcs és nagy volt a Duna
As if it flowed straight from my heart
Troubled, wise and great was the Danube.
As if my own heart had opened its gate:
The Danube was turbulent, wise and great.
It’s a metal statue, but the mixture of melancholy and longing was palpable.
We’ve been to the photographic museum where the photo-images of Budapest in the 90s (when my character Catherine is visiting to write about Joszef) have dramatically changed my ideas about the place at that time, despite all the reading I’d already done.
We’ve visited the Orthodox Kazinczy Street Synagoue – so bright and alive, full of folk design and with windows of painted glass – flamboyantly Art Nouveau – Secessionist. And also the Dohány Street Synagogue of the Neolog congregation in the Erzsébetváros district. It’s the biggest synagogue in Europe and takes nearly three-thousand people. It looks more like a cathedral with an organ and choir – staffed by non-Jews in a wonderful bit of theological casuistry.
It’s beautiful, Moorish-style building full of ochres, deep pinks and dark wood polished like mirrors; the glass opaque and lots of it coloured – mustard and cobalt with flashes of scarlet around the creamy white stars of David. It feels sombre, but it’s seen a lot of tragedy. After the war it survived as a prayer house through the Communist era, but wasn’t renovated until the early 90s. There’s an exquisite memorial in the garden that was erected during the renovations. A weeping tree in silver; each slender leaf has a name inscribed on it – so simple and poignant. A tree of life in the face of death.
I could read about any of this and I’m aware that in tiny, finite lives reading and other ways of accruing information that makes us more empathic is vital. I’m a novelist because I know the power of narratives to inform, to inspire, to get under the skin of what might make us human. But I also know the power of place and Budapest is communicating that powerfully. As a writer, the urge to travel, to be touched by a sense of place, has never felt more urgent and I hope the unfamiliarity will make me push at the boundaries of what I think and write as the work progresses.
After a launch in Paris and train rides across Europe, with a stop in Munich before finally arriving at Budapest’s Keleti station, we are settling into Budapest. It is unlike anywhere we’ve ever visited – not only is the Hungarian language seemingly impenetrable, even to someone with a smattering of Latin and French and German, but the sense of place is distinctly different. In the centre of a huge capital city cars give way to pedestrians routinely and stop to let people cross and people are polite and helpful – ‘you’re welcome’ seems to be the phrase of choice in every café or shop – yet there are not many smiles to be seen.
The current politics in Hungary are not encouraging. One post I read by a Hungarian/Norwegian blogger, talked about leaving the country due to the level of crony capitalism, nepotism, poor working conditions with longer hours than other European countries and degradation of infrastructure.
Life under Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party is replete with extreme right-wing thinking, whilst the major opposition party, Jobbik, is even more worrying and makes no secret of its views on ‘ethnic purity’. In such an environment, Budapest is gaining a reputation as a haven for disgruntled nationalists from across the West, not something that is easy to substantiate either way with rival blogs claiming wildly differing ‘facts’, but even assuming that most ex-pats are liberal or apolitical, it seems likely that a minority strand are attracted to an increasingly right wing rhetoric. I hope I wouldn’t be smiling if this were happening before my eyes back in the UK, but the current political scene isn’t the only factor in this atmosphere of melancholy; it’s something that is clearly not a new phenomenon in Budapest — as is discussed in the fascinating article (‘Happy with Tears’) by Nicky Loomis on the Los Angeles Review of Books’ site, reviewing László Földényi’s Melancholy.
While Földényi’s book addresses wider philosophical questions of melancholy, Loomis, from a Hungarian family, is particularly interested in this as a cultural and national trait. Her mother tells her that it’s due to the country being landlocked and occupied one too many times. She wonders:
“Can pain be passed down … The more I heard while living there, the more I began to project — e.g., the pain in a woman’s eyes on a train was because of some horror she witnessed during her lifetime. This is a very powerful and dangerous road to go down as a writer, but it is unavoidable as you begin to research a place and write about it, to start to connect the dots in the landscape you are moving through. Let me not grow too fond of other people’s pain, I kept reminding myself.
Yet that pain, that melancholy, kept presenting itself during my time there.”
She cites the extraordinary isolation of the Hungarian language, unlike any neighbouring language, so that Hungarian literature has been slow to be translated and recognised; the bleakness of the landscape, especially in the interminable winters (captured both in the writing László Krasznahorkai and films of Béla Tarr) and points out that Hungary has its own ‘suicide song’ (‘Gloomy Sunday’, covered by Billie Holiday) and that even the national anthem sings about sorrow and pity. She quotes Judith Sollosy of Corvina Press cautioning that melancholy has sometimes been anything from a stereotype to a fad, but also noting that Hungary has had suffered constant defeats and is left celebrating its losses.
Within hours of arriving here, the ‘melancholy’ was noticeable and prompted me to search out other views on it, as well as to do more research into current affairs here. The characters in my book know plenty about sorrow, pity and suffering. One is based on the historical character and exceptional poet, Attila József, who either died in a tragic accident or of suicide (the balance seems to favour the latter) in his early thirties in 1937. Whatever the truth of his death under a rail carriage, he certainly struggled with severe mental health issues, spending several periods in institutions and also struggled with the politics of his day and unhappy personal relationships. Another character, Selene, is a young woman in 1959 whose Jewish family have previously fled from Paris ahead of the Nazis (where her French mother met her Hungarian father) only to lose the father to the brutal Munkaszolgálat, a forced labour conscription that particularly targeted Jews and intellectuals thought to be too untrustworthy and unnationalistic to be soldiers in the alliance with Nazi Germany. Selene is briefly involved in the 1956 uprising and is arrested, detained (for a long time without trial) and held indefinitely, not knowing whether she will survive or ever see her young daughter again. And the third is a writer, Catherine – the protagonist of my recent novel, This is the End of the Story – trying to make sense of these two lives, but struggling with a series of personal tragedies, losses and increasing doubt.
One of central Budapest’s many crumbling buildings
As I slowly get acquainted with a city full of beauty, but also teeming with ambivalence, poverty, once grand buildings crumbling alongside others that are shiny and renovated, I’m happy to be in this place that has known so many tears and continues to do so. There is authenticity here and a huge amount to learn, and although I will only skim the surface in the few weeks I have here, it’s a privilege (thanks to Arts Council England) to be able to research the novel in the place it’s set and to soak up something of what shapes particular people in particular cultures, moments of history and landscapes.
Character 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…
On the train back from seeing my daughter’s new home last week I read an introduction to psychogeography, thinking about Cwmorthin and the impact of that place on local emotion and behaviour from the social to the personal. Defoe, writing A Journal Of the Plague Year, sixty of seventy years after the event, spoke of the “sense of haunted geography” and of how familiar places were transformed beyond recognition by the ravages of plague.
Slate mining had a similar effect. Tiny communities of farmers and small-scale non commercial slate mining were overlaid by an industrial machine. The valley must soon have been unrecognisable and farming homesteads that had been in one place for centuries were often obliterated in the name of progress, a subject I’ve touched on in a prose poem fragment that’s part of the first section of the sequence:
iii. Home Improvements
On the only map of Cwmorthin before the slate-rush, two homes — Tai’r Muriau, named for hut circles that stood before memory, Clyttiau, which never made a census, though in 1841 two homesteads, Tai’r Muriau and Dyffryn Dubach stood. By 1861, Cwmorthin Slate Company had made great improvements to the cwm; Tai’r Muriau buried beneath its waste.
The process of transformation came again in less than a hundred years with the decline of the slate industry. Now Cwmorthin is home to neither farming nor industry, it’s inhabited; a place with a few ruins and a vast abandoned labyrinth of tunnels and chambers beneath the surface. Yet it is a place of haunted geography with a strong imaginative pull.
Most psychogeography centres on the city, especially London and Paris, and often psychogeography that is sensitive to the history of place tends also to be conservative–political commitment is sacrificed to historical tradition, to past resonances replayed. There is a similar tension in the psychogeography of Cwmorthin, the tendency to hark back to a time of full employment, strong community, flourishing cabans where men debated politics and religion in the language in which they also dreamt, can become deeply conservative. It can overlook the brutal working conditions, the deaths, the subservient relationships to mine owners and the narrow roles for women in an overwhelmingly male world. Ironically such harking back and romanticisation is in deep contradiction to the spirit of debate and radical politics of the cabans themselves.
But there are also avant-garde and radical impulses within psychogeography, characterised by writers like Blake, who saw that rebuilding requires destruction and whose images are as transformative as they are apocalyptic, or other writers who celebrate forgotten corners and landscapes. I’m interested in these notions of transformation, defamiliarisation and reclamation made by the wanderer and poet; a collision of the political and the aesthetic alongside the collision of psychology and geography.
I finished my journey last week reading a selected edition of poetry by Philip Gross. In the poem ‘In Another Part of the Wood’ (written about Aldermaston) he writes,
a world ends, where a swathe of moonlight
silvers a ten-foot wire. The shadow-
cratered heath beyond is bright
as frost. A few slim birches tiptoe
in among cowled pipes, squat tumuli
with concrete cladding, grilles that hum.
It’s here, the future’s archeology.
Cwmorthin is not archeology yet — the ruins have not yet become hidden under the life of new epochs, we can still unearth its stories, still narrativise and connect, still imagine before we, along with the Victorian slate miners, become the future’s archeology.