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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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The Objects that Speak of Us

Researching A Remedy for All Things in Budapest, I’ve been aware of how vital artefacts can be in communicating something about a person. The thought struck me sharply on a walk along the Danube, confronted by a simple and heart-breaking installation along the bank — pairs of shoes in memory of the Jewish citizens who were herded to the river in 1944 and 1945, made to take off their shoes by members of the fascist Arrow Cross party, and shot; their bodies washed away by the river while the shoes remained, empty.

Another author, Nigel Hutchinson, who is an artist as well as poet, remarked that shoes are particularly affecting because of the way a foot shapes a shoe to itself, so that each one bear the unique imprint of the wearer. This is certainly the case and other artefacts can also speak volumes as I noticed when I visited the Attila József Museum. Not only were examples of his hand-writing on display, but other personal objects, like the retractable pencil that he wrote with; a facsimile of a rocking horse that was his only toy as a young child and which he gave to his mother for firewood when they had none; and a small change purse.

The purse has gone into a scene when Attila first meets Selene:

No, don’t think that, she reassures. I can’t explain how I’m here, but I am real. I was about to make dinner for my mother. I sat down for a moment and thought I was getting a migraine, but then I heard a train and … I heard a train last time too.

You are still feeling sick?

No, the pain didn’t come. I get this phantosmia — of oranges usually — then lights and darkness over half my vision, but both times I’ve met you … the symptoms have started, but no headache — I hear a train and … here I am.

Phantosmia, Attila repeats, as though savouring the word. You are hungry? There’s a taverna on Szoladi útca with good food. I might even have a few worthless pengő with me.

Selene smiles, reaches into a pocket for her small purse. If we eat it will have to be you who pays, she says, holding out coins — forints and fillérs. My currency that will be meaningless in 1937.

He pulls a well-fingered, small, square change purse from his pocket. It’s stiff brown leather creaks a little as he eases the flap from underneath the cross-strap and peers inside. He nods and smiles. So, I will buy you dinner.

But you … I don’t think you can afford …

A special occasion, he insists.

He holds an arm and she links it as though they are old friends.

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And other objects have assumed even greater importance in communicating themes or threads through the novel. Catherine wears a small necklace that first appeared in This is the End of the Story when she is searching for traces of the 11th century Casilda and dreams that her friend Miriam is with her:

When I step out of the shower, the flow of blood has ceased.

Here, Miriam says, enfolding me in a white towel. And this, she adds. She holds out a white knitted shawl that I’ve never seen, but know from the pages of Casilda of the Rising Moon, pulls it around me. It’s a cold night, she says, get under the blankets. I’ll make you some mint tea.

I slide between white cotton sheets, drowse.

When I wake, the sky is dark, sharp stars dazzle through open shutters. On the bedside table of dark wood and mother of pearl, a silk cord of palest blue, strung with a tiny hamsa: the hand of Miriam in damascene black, silver, gold. Beside it a turquoise glass of mint tea has cooled.

The hamsa becomes not only Catherine’s link back to Miriam and to a time of a more visionary sense of the world, but also a link to Selene, who, imprisoned at the end of the 1950s, seems to be in possession of the same talisman, carefully hidden.

I never saw the enchantment, only story and facts aligned. Miriam was my Ben Haddaj. I was Casilda. I was not Cassie (Catherine Anne McManus) from the Lawn’s Estate. Miriam was so certain that in this lifetime Ben Haddaj would save me and that we would be together forever. And I clung to her until an incident so small, so brutal, sent my world spinning apart. And then I rationalised it all away. … I survived Liam and the first miscarriage, convinced myself that life was beginning to make sense. And it was, even through the shock of Miriam’s death, even through the strange experiences in Toledo — the sense of Casilda with me at the tiny mosque, the inexplicable certainty of Miriam comforting me after the sudden flow of blood, the mint tea that I found, cooling by my bedside when I woke, and the hamsa that I wear always, that Selene carries always, that I remember seeing Judith wearing the last time I saw her …

I have lived without the facts and the story conforming to one another for years. I have learnt the art of ambiguity, but the intrusion of this other reality, this fragmented sense of identity and perception is straining my ability to function,

Objects anchor us. Objects can signal how people identify themselves and how they want to be perceived by others. Objects become the repositories of memories, reminders of events. There’s an antique pen in the current novel, which Catherine gives to Simon after a visit to the artists’ colony at Szentendre, and which will re-appear in the third book in the trilogy, For Hope is Always Born. It’s personal, says something about the user, adds texture and depth to the narrative, shows the reader some vital detail without bluntly telling her what to think or see …

There’s a sketchbook that Catherine is given in Paris that once belonged to Selene’s father and which becomes not only a symbol of a life that Selene has lost, but also a possible motif for the future:

My father worked for Sándor and Marie Virág. Marie was Parisian, they both knew art and had met at school. Sándor had a particularly good eye. He could draw too — a very good sense of line, but he was a gregarious man, they were good with people, good at finding homes for art works and good at spotting whose work would sell. They lived above the shop here with their daughter. All was going well, but then …

The Nazis?

It was before they arrived, before their foul ‘Ordances’, but by the late Thirties even so-called liberals were denouncing Jews, blaming them for luring us into a war with Germany that was nothing to do with ‘real’ French people. The rhetoric was more and more violent. Sándor decided they should leave. He could see what was coming. My father, Charles, wanted to buy the gallery, but he didn’t have the savings. They hoped to return and they liked him, wanted to make him a partner. So my father paid what he could, nothing like the worth of the gallery, but they drew up their own agreement — when they came back he would use the profits from the intervening time to make it a full partnership.

But they never returned.

My father tried to find them, but in Hungary …

Jews were forced to move into ghettos, it would have been hard.

Yes, and then Communism — but it’s preyed on him all these years.

He’s still alive?

Yes, eighty-eight and in failing health, but his mind is sharp.

I can’t imagine they’d think anything other than what good hands they left the gallery in.

The granddaughter — Miriam you said? — if she could write to my father, even visit. I know he’d want to compensate her, there is still a clause in his will…

She’s another missing person at the moment, my friends are trying to locate her, but if we find her …

Thank you. Marcel hesitates, lifts the package from the tray. If you find her, could you give her this or pass it on to relatives?

Catherine unfolds the carefully layered brown paper around a sketchbook, dark brown card covers, a taped binding in burgundy. Inside, thick sketch paper, each page a study of a person —

They are all of Marie or his daughter, Marcel offers. He leans over, stares at the open page. You look like you could be the Selene as an adult, he says. You are also related?

Catherine shivers. No, she says quietly, just … a coincidence, I suppose. They’re beautiful, very delicate.

Yes — so few lines, so much expression. You will take the book for Miriam?

Well, I —

For my father to know they are on their way to Sándor’s family — even if you don’t find her for some time — it would give him great peace.

Catherine nods. Thank you.

And there’s a book that Catherine is shown by Szuzsanna Makai, Attila József’s niece, on which the plot might turn, but you’ll have to wait for the book to be published to learn more about that object…

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Of Terror, Memory and Controversy

Writing in an unfamiliar place where the language is impenetrable (I’ve mastered ‘thank you’ – kösönöm) is giving me a huge amount to process and making the second draft of the novel much richer in detail and atmosphere. But information is never neutral and it’s a difficult and fascinating exercise to sift for particular perspectives in a culture that I’m an outsider to.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA couple of days ago I visited the House of Terror at Andrassy utca, 60. This infamous building was the home of the extreme right-wing Arrow Cross. In power for a relatively short time, this fascist national socialist party with ideals of racial purity benefitted enormously when the Germans occupied Hungary in 1944 after losing patience with their allies for being too moderate. In just over a year the death toll and deportation of Jews, Romanies and other ‘undesirables’ soared, with atrocities mounting. After 1945 and the Soviet regime, the building was taken over by the indigenous arm of the communist secret police, the AVH, and became the nerve centre of purges and terror campaigns against the population.

In my novel, Selene is briefly held in the basement cells of this building (where many were tortured, sometimes dying of their injuries) so it was somewhere I wanted to visit, but it’s a controversial ‘museum’. Péter Apor argues:

The Budapest House of Terror is one of the most notorious examples of abusing spectacular new media audiovisual technology to exhibit a politically and ideologically biased historical narrative. … the institution is not only an eloquent example of how the careless use of ‘public history’ is able to manipulate the ‘consumption’ of history, (but) … represents another important agenda: many new ‘public history’ museums call themselves memory museums. Such claims often contain an epistemological distinction between ‘object-based history’ and ‘collective-mentality-based memory.’ As the case of the House of Terror demonstrates, it is however a dangerous strategy: the idea of an ‘alternative epistemology’ based on ‘collective memory’ is basically a denial of any rational way of obtaining knowledge about the past.

Whilst agreeing that memory is a slippery concept, I wouldn’t wholly follow Apor’s argument. Memory can be a tricky and fraught concept, but is also ‘existentially rich’. Like Christian Karner and Bram Mertens in The Use and Abuse of Memory, I think it possible to find a theoretical position in which memory is neither co-terminus with nor inimical to historical ‘fact’, not a compromised middle-ground, but a genuine dialogue that allows a new perspective between ‘evidence’ and ‘experience’.

But, whatever the epistemology we adopt in examining past atrocities, those that attract cultural tourism whilst also being laden with the political stances of their current creators and curators, are particularly difficult places to interpret. Moreover, the House of Terror has been highly involved in political controversy. Its wholesale backing by the right-wing prime minister Viktor Orbán, especially its opening during an election period in which the socialist opposition was subtly linked to the extreme Soviet past, so warning voters not to vote socialist. Additionally, whilst the house (and its highly effective joint logo that unites the Arrow Cross and Soviet star symbols) claims to examine both Nazi and Communist atrocities, the balance is much more skewed to room after room on the evils of Communism. Clearly the terror and suffering in that era was considerable, but they are not the whole picture and Jewish communities have objected that in massively concentrating on the Soviet era the Holocaust is down-played. (see Tamara Rátz, ‘Interpretation in the House of Terror, Budapest’ in Cultural Tourism in a Changing World, Melanie K Smith & Mike Robinson)

A further problem is that the exhibit not only makes it appear that there was no ‘normal, daily life’ in Hungary in the Communist era, but also locates the ‘evil’ as ‘other’. Whilst those who collaborated with the two regimes or worked for them are named with photographs on a ‘wall of victimisers’ (itself controversial given we don’t know the level of involvement from names and photographs and given that heritage sites do not normally set themselves up as judge and jury) there is nonetheless an overall sense that ‘evil’ came from outside the indigenous culture.

I’m glad to have experienced this first hand and been exposed to the controversies and questions, but most of all the visit was ‘fruitful’ for simply walking through the largely empty basement cells: chilling and inhumane, the atmosphere there was palpably horrifying without need of interpretation boards or video screens.

In the meantime, I’ve got lots to think about as I write a novel in which terror is not a spectacle, but an everyday fear for at least one of my three main characters, and in which memory and it’s slipperiness is central.

 

 

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A Budapest Anatomy of Melancholy

Close up of Attila Jozsef's statue

Attila Jozsef statue, Budapest

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.

Upper floors of a decaying building

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.

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Meet Me in Budapest

Hand of Miriam on the wall of the Toledo Museum of MagicCharacter 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…

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