Tag Archives: resistance

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.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized, writing

2016 – or why write fiction in an insane world

2016 has been an extraordinary year. Having celebrated its first decade, Cinnamon Press hasthis_is_the_end published some extraordinary poetry and fiction this year and put gorgeously designed books into the world. We’ve had a bumper crop of mentoring students making it very hard to choose who we will go on to publish. We’ve had well-supported competitions with winners whose books we’re enthusiastic to develop, publish and promote. We’ve even been privileged to have some international launches and have enjoyed  opportunities to write, think, walk, cook… in between editing and mentoring.

In all these respects, 2016 has been good – very good. And yet it’s also been a year of loss and turmoil. The political landscape looks grim: Brexit – an ‘advisory’ vote has become synonymous with the ‘people have spoken’ – even whilst many of those people are crying out that they had no idea what they were voting for; the terrifying move to the right in many European countries ;the election of Trump in the US,  a sign of the ascendancy of confusion, anger and nihilism and a dearth of political education or hope and horrific humanitarian disasters, especially in Syria.

Politically 2016 has been bad – beyond bad and has instigated decisions that will go on having negative repercussions and sewing divisiveness. And the downsides of this year have not only been political, though the connections between personal and political realms are never absent. It’s been a year when great thinkers, actors, singers have died – of course any year might be that, but it’s ‘felt’ more acute in 2016 – the loss of people like Umberto Eco, Ornette Coleman, Alan Rickman, Leonard Cohen, Gene Wilder, George Martin, John Glenn, Elie Wiesel… has gone on and on, whilst I’ve known at least five close personal friends battling cancers this year, felt helpless for several gifted young people who, despite god degrees and hard work, can’t keep up with their rent in minimum wage jobs that squander their talents and leave them exhausted and dispirited. I’ve celebrated with friends who’ve had triumphs – a publishing contract, a new relationship, an extraordinary creative project, but more often cried with those who are mourning terrible illness, the end of a long relationship, the loss of a child, one too many rejection.

In the midst of such a strange year, brimming with celebration and loss, but coming to an end in so much political uncertainty and anxiety, I’ve finished a novel. It’s a book that has been simmering slowly in me for over 30 years. The actual writing began much more recently, but some of the events that informed it and later became reshaped and fictionalised have very deep roots. I’ve finished a novel and of all the books I’ve written it’s the one I feel most passionate about because it’s a novel that says the personal and the political are not disparate but intertwined and it’s a novel that says when the world is going to hell, when culture is being harried, when divisiveness is on on every corner , then we need other ways of seeing – ways that sometimes only story can provide.

It can feel self-indulgent to write while people suffer, but shutting up artists – whether visual or of the word would ultimately assist the tide of insanity; downing pens and paint brushes and cameras would let the rise of hatred and suffering overwhelm us and have its way. My novel is not salvation. One exquisite photograph, one exceptional poem, one inspiring sculpture will not save the world – but each of these acts of art is something – something that has the opportunity to say, with Cervantes:

When life seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams – this may be madness … – and maddest of all to see life as it is and not as it should be.

2016 has been the best of times and the worst of times. 2017 might be the same. We can resist madness where we see it, mourn with those who mourn, rejoice with those who rejoice, refuse to be dumbed down; above all make art and literature that will not accept the way things are. This is at least one good reason to write fiction in an insane world.

Leave a comment

December 22, 2016 · 11:43 pm