Tag Archives: Quixote

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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Writing of Politics and Religion

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the UK, an island that suffers from not being continental, as demonstrated so resoundingly in the Brexit referendum, we are known for not talking about certain subjects — religion and politics are taboo at a dinner table in polite company. But life is not polite — it is messy, and ideology and belief are inescapable.

This is the End of the Story is set in the 70s, an era of strikes, the three-day week, and rising unemployment; an era of hot hot summers, droughts, psychedelic clothes, the Yorkshire Ripper… Life is so often both the best of times and the worst of times and I wanted a fiction that would reflect that. How? I have a lot of sympathy with Keats in hating poetry that has a palpable design on us and similarly with fiction — the overly didactic can be wearing (despite being able to think of wonderful exceptions), so I didn’t want rants or great expository lumps intruding in a novel that is essentially character-driven. I opted instead for a device that is used in the film version of The Children of Men (better than the original P D James novel in my opinion) — that of backgrounding the politics. In the film the dystopian devastation, protests and bombings take place behind the main action, slightly off-screen, and go uncommented. Anne Clarke does a similar thing in her excellent poetry collection, In the Margin, using events from the IRA’s mainland bombing campaign as asides that are barely noticed by the persona and her lover, caught up in an affair.

A Quixote-inspired novel with a major character bent on the pursuit of justice can’t ignore political realities, but I’ve used vignettes, interleaved between the non-liner chapters in which the coming of age story plays out, to hint at the ambivalent attitude towards political engagement. And in each of these vignettes there is a report on the current music charts and, of course, the weather, partly because the weather is used as a metaphor for the story of the main chapters, but also because we live in a society that constantly undercuts the seriousness of world or domestic crises by placing them alongside the frivolous; in itself a political statement.

And religion? Cervantes is remarkable for his sympathy with Spain’s Moors. Towards the end of writing This is the End of the Story I went to Toledo to look for traces of Casilda, a young Moorish princess who later became a Christian saint buried at Burgos, in Northern Spain. Casilda is fascinating as someone who converted from Islam to become a Christian saint, whilst her unrequited lover, Ben Haddaj, reputedly returned to the religion of his fathers, Judaism, Casilda’s faithful nurse remained a loyal Muslim whilst staying with Casilda, and her brother and father were devout Muslims who had alliances with Christian princes. There are times when belief and tolerance live together, but that didn’t last in Spain, as in so many other places.

Visiting The Mosque of Cristo de la Luz, one of the few buildings in Toledo that would have been there exactly as it is now in Casilda’s life time, the breakdown of tolerance is recorded in stone — an apse built onto the beautiful little mosque, painted with Christ triumphant, a crucifix surveying all. Similarly, the exquisite synagogues in Toledo were taken over and ‘christianised’ as the Jews were later expelled from Spain. The move from Cosmopolitan to myopic, from tolerance to hatred was often swift and brutal. A familiar story.

I wanted to reflect that tension in This is the End of the Story so Miriam is the only Jewish girl in an otherwise homogeneous school, whilst Cassie is Christian, but stands out for being Catholic. They encounter intolerance from anti-Semitic bullies and a well-meaning, but insensitively evangelical, Anglican curate; the nature of belief — not only in any kind of deity, but in humanity or in goodness of itself, is a key theme in the book. It’s a theme I will return to in the second book, when Cassie, now Catherine, dreams the life of a Hungarian Jewish young woman imprisoned after the 1956 uprising, but, as I said in the last post, that’s another story, which begs the question — is this the end of the story?

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