Hazel McHaffie

Edinburgh Festivals

More Jane Austen … why not!

It’s that time of year again – Festival time. As someone once famously said to all actors/performers/dramatists: ‘If you aren’t in Edinburgh in August you might as well be dead.’ And we are fortunate enough to live here.

Chez nous we have a stack of tickets for a whole range of shows still to come but this week’s star performance goes to a one-woman show featuring the brilliant actor Rebecca Vaughn with Austen’s Women. I loved her faultless eloquence and brilliant stagecraft with Jane Eyre last year, so she was a must-go-to this time.

And she didn’t disappoint. She took on the characters and mannerisms of fourteen different women from nine of Austen’s novels and linked them all with wise statements about life through the all-seeing eyes of the ubiquitous Austen narrator, all without pausing even while she donned her next costume. She segued from twittering Miss Bates, to a petulant Mary Musgrove, to simpering Harriet Smith, to snooty Mrs Elton to vivacious Lizzy Bennet with consummate skill. And the entire 70 minutes was in Jane Austen’s own words, a patchwork of commentary from her whole canon. Put together by Rebecca Vaughn herself. Amazing skill and an enviable memory!

Though I’ve read all the Austen novels and watched several films of these classics, it seemed fitting to prepare for this particular event by reading Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin to understand better the author’s influences and backstory. Sobering to think Jane herself was so little acknowledged in her lifetime, but critical literature about her now ‘runs to thousands of volumes and tens of thousands of articles’  and that ‘between 1952 and 1972 alone there were 551 books, essays and articles published, not to mention 85 doctoral dissertations‘ written about her … although it has to be said, that many of us who love her work would probably prefer to protect this quietly unassuming young woman from this relentless scrutiny and critical dissection and just enjoy her writing.

In telling Austen’s life story Tomalin has done her best to preserve the intimacy and spirit of her subject. I particularly liked her assessment of those now-famous Austen fictional women and how time influenced their development and sometimes contributed to little inconsistencies in the final published versions – time while Jane waited … and waited … and waited for others to appreciate her writing.

When she first drafted Pride and Prejudice she was 20. By the time it was published in 1813 she was 37. Imagine! Seventeen years between composing it and seeing it in print! Sense and Sensibility took sixteen years to achieve the same goal. Northanger Abbey only found a publisher after twenty years by which time the author was dead. How sad is that? A sobering lesson for the rest of us who’re frustrated by a couple of years delay while agents or publishers do their stuff. And her edits and revisions weren’t simple cut-and-paste jobs either!

Two hundred years on, we accept her ‘exquisite touch’ and ‘vitality of voice‘ but even once she was published, Jane had to endure some pretty vitriolic criticism and quite unjust treatment. Only over time and posthumously did she gain the recognition she so richly deserved.

Then there were the periods of writers’ block. Displacement, bereavement and depression in real life stilled her pen for ten years between the ages of 25 and 35. Without familiar and predictable routines – ‘the same views from the same windows; the same household routines and daily walks in the garden or to the church or the village; the same sounds and silences’ – and bogged down with the relentless care of other people’s children and relatives, she was bereft of the secure and peaceful environment in which her imagination could take flight. Adrift without anchors. She had lost father, home, any prospect of marriage, and all hope of getting anything published. Penniless, she was dependent on her brothers, obliged to accept whatever living arrangements were chosen for her, feeling very much like an awkward parcel.

More than enough vicissitudes to make a writer give up for good, you’d think. How much more should we value the resilience and determination that brought her amazing and enduring work to us.

, , , , , , , , ,

Comments

Amazing talent

Fresh from the Edinburgh Festivals, I’m feeling overawed by the enormous breadth of talent I’ve been exposed to lately. So it seems appropriate to home in on another aspect of human endeavour currently impressing me greatly: the skill that goes into creating a well-crafted thriller. I could select any of the books I’ve just read but I’ll take the last one – which happens to be the meatiest!

The WinnerWhen I first selected The Winner by David Baldacci off my shelves I confess I was very inclined to return it rapidly. 565 pages … hmmm! And the layout is strangely off-putting. How glad I am that my conscience made me resist that temptation and give the book a fair crack of the whip. Almost 600 pages it might be but not one of them is surplus to requirement. Not for a second did I lose interest or skim a page. Coffees went cold, meals were late, bedtime extended way past a sensible hour. The pace, the tension, never slacken – totally gripping throughout. Why?

Dense textWell, let’s look at why.

  1. The protagonists are believable and well-rounded, their true characters emerging gradually as the story unravels. And they are multi-faceted, with strengths and weaknesses, attributes and flaws, appeal and unlikeable traits. So, LuAnn Tyler is a dirt-poor young woman shacked up in a down-at-heel trailer with an unskilled, unemployed drunk, Duane Harvey, who unbeknownst to her is dabbling in drugs. They have a baby daughter, Lisa, whom LuAnn adores and would give her life for. She’s a brilliant mother. She’s also very beautiful. Jackson on the other hand is a cunning manipulator with a brilliant mind, no scruples and no moral code. He is a master of disguise who has the power to infiltrate any world he chooses, and such is his reach that we start to suspect every new character and startle at every sudden appearance, fearing his malevolent influence.
  2. The motives of the main characters are mixed, complex and intriguing; nothing stereotypical here. So, for example, LuAnn’s conscience baulks at being involved in anything illegal but when she finds the father of her child dying and she herself has hit – probably fatally – Duane’s murderer, she realises she’s in a hopeless situation: if she does the right thing she’ll be clapped in jail and her baby girl will be taken away from her. For Lisa’s sake she must accept Jackson’s dubious offer. And even when she becomes enormously wealthy, her conscience dictates she must pay back to society in some way. But when the final challenge comes she’s not averse to capitalising on the proceeds of crime.
  3. We’re rightly wary of Jackson from the outset, but Baldacci ratchets up the tension by continually, incrementally, broadening the range of the man’s evil. We learn more and more about his modus operandi until we are fascinated by his ingenuity, fearfully anticipating his next devious move, and seeing him behind every shadow. Even though we actually learn his true identity on page 481, there is still no end to the depths to which he will sink to protect himself and his schemes, and we live in a state of high alert dreading what’s to come.
  4. On the other hand, the novel appeals to our better nature too. Flawed though LuAnn undoubtedly is, we want to see her win through in the end. She engenders sympathy and devotion in the people she meets: Charlie leaves behind his shady past and becomes her staunchest ally; Matthew Riggs forsakes his anonymity and quiet life to protect her. And LuAnn’s trust once gained becomes a precious commodity. We too care about her welfare.
  5. The plotting is so assured and clever that the improbable seems believable. The depiction of national security issues, the detail of each disguise, each manouevre, each scheme, each flight from retribution as the characters fight for supremacy or justice, keep the reader riveted and the pages simply fly by.
  6. The pace never flags. No saggy middle, no anticlimax, here.
  7. The story line is far-reaching and challenging, involving matters of international security, government shenanigans, personal crusades. Your imagination goes into over-drive wondering, what if …?

I could go on, but enough for now. Baldacci inhabits his characters brilliantly. He inspires a horrifying blend of reactions – unexpected empathy, dread, subtle identification, revulsion. And we have to ask ourselves, in LuAnn’s situation, what would I have done? Would I have her devotion, her courage, her determination? Would my priorities have been hers? Would I commit a crime for the greater good of those I love? Charlie and Matthew are convinced anyone would have done exactly what she did; now I know LuAnn, I have to ask again: Would I?

What I DO know is I’d love to be able to write with Baldacci’s assurance and cleverness. He totally deserves the lavish praise of the critics.

Praise for Baldacci

PS. I found one tiny flaw: a mistake in the name on p524! One of the hazards of using the same initial for two main characters I suspect. It surprised me though, given the stature of the author and its professional production and the number of eyes that must have checked this book.

 

, , , , , ,

Comments

After the fireworks

Well, the 2016 Festivals certainly ended in fine style on Monday with a few thousand pounds worth of fireworks exploding spectacularly over Edinburgh Castle on a still dark night perfect for purpose.

Festival fireworks 1Fireworks 2

Festival fliersNow the millions of flyers and posters are being swept from the streets; the artistes have left the city’s hotels and guest houses; mysterious venues become their alter egos again; the buses return to running on time; the air in Princes Street is no longer riven with native American music; the good people of Edinburgh heave a collective sigh of relief.

As you know, I’ve enjoyed dipping into the huge diversity of amazing opportunities available in this magical city. But now it’s time to knuckle down to some serious work.

 

ThrillersBack to the masterclass in thriller-writing I spoke about last week. My attention has turned to analysing other new-to-me authors’ work: Heart Collector by Jacques Vandroux, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins; The Winner by David Baldacci.

All helpful in reinforcing the essential elements I outlined last week, but also in highlighting things that don’t work for me:

Names which sound/look very similar; characteristics which are too similar. When you have a cast of many, it’s hard to hold them all in your head. Distinctive attributes help to keep them sharply defined.

Too many foreign place names.

Knowing too much too soon – reduces the tension too early.

Too many dates and flashbacks that require the reader to flick back and forth, calculating ages and years. A thriller’s meant to be tense, keeping you moving forward searching for answers.

Too many lies from an unreliable narrator; so many that they muddle the brain and the plotline.

But it’s also been comforting to see that the thriller author does not need a degree in jurisprudence! I’m hanging on to that thought at least. So many stories in this genre hinge around police procedures and court wrangles, but there are other ways to approach crimes.

Also I am newly aware that even in the staccato sentences and fast pace and intense action of thrillers, building up a detailed picture of each character over time adds to the reader’s engagement with them.

The more I read the more I’m impressed by the skill behind these books … and the more daunting my own task becomes. I’m forced back to the question: Could I do it? or maybe it’s: Could I do it? Jury’s still out on this one.

 

 

 

 

, , , , , , ,

Comments

Would you believe it?

One wall of my libraryHave you ever discovered that you’ve somehow bought two copies of the same book – neither of which you’ve read? Mea culpa. Twice! Grrrrr. On both occasions I’ve sternly resolved to order my books more carefully … when I get time. But that time never seems to materialise.

So I was mightily impressed by this story I read about recently. In the tenth century, Abdul Kassam Ismael, Grand Vizier of Persia, took his library with him wherever he went so he’d always feel at home. At first I was pretty sceptical – well, how many books were there in those days? But this man had no less than 117,000 titles. It took 400 camels to carry them and would you believe it, these living shelves were trained to march in alphabetical order! Knocks our Dewey Decimal systems into a cocked hat, huh?

Since the Festival is in full swing, I’ve only had space to dip into secondhand bookshops in odd breaks between shows this week, but so far – phew! touch wood – no duplicates among my purchases. No time to read them yet though. Nor to rearrange my shelves. Ticket for excellent Fringe showToo busy being a regular Festival-goer with my grandchildren and being challenged and bowled over by other people’s amazing talent – scriptwriters, actors, musicians, dancers, artists. So much cleverness out there. Star of the show so far: Rebecca Dunn with an impeccable eighty minute monologue about her life as Lady Pamela Moore, fashion columnist and secret agent infiltrating the lives of Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII. Fantastic.

And while we’re on the subject of brilliance … Can you get your head around a mind that could conjure up something as stunning as this living sculpture (Jupiter Artland)?

Ponds and grass sculptures

Or these wonderfully evocative weeping girl statues nestling so naturally in woodland (also Jupiter Artland)?Weeping girl statueWeeping girl second statue-2

We visited this collection of amazing installations for the second time yesterday and were impressed all over again. Highly recommended.

, , , , , , ,

Comments

Arts, crafts and literature

August. Hard to believe but it’s Festival time in Edinburgh yet again.  Other commitments and limited time are forcing me to divide my allegiance roughly into three divisions: this week – arts and crafts; next week – drama; the following week – literature.

Wooden penSo this week I’ve visited exhibitions and craft fairs, and as ever been hugely impressed by the skilled hands and eyes which create fabulous works of art of so many types.  I couldn’t resist this beautifully turned wooden pen which is destined to become my signing-books tool from hereon in.

It seemed fitting then, in snatched odd moments, to read The Iceberg: a true-life memoir of an artistic family by Marion Coutts which I bought soon after it came out last year … an author for whom ‘August from its first to its last day has been like this, a designated disaster zone, dates crossed out on the calendar like grazes or scars and dotted with emergency notes scribbled in pen.

At the heart of the book, its context, its object and its subject, is art critic and bibliophile, Tom Lubbock. Buying books is his habit; reading them is his work and life. His house is stacked high with them. He can go with practised ease to any title, any quote. His living depends on speaking and writing. How cruel then that he should develop a grade four tumour in the area of the brain controlling speech and language, which will gradually but inexorably rob him of the ability to communicate verbally.

The IcebergVisual artist wife, Marion Coutts, on the other hand, finds she is unable to read since learning that her husband is terminally ill. Words have become irrelevant except insofar as Tom needs them. If he is searching she will find and feed the words back to him until they reach a perfect understanding. In time she becomes Tom’s mouth, although without his brain she feels something of a fraud.

Son, Ev, is a toddler, absorbing language and coordination; learning to understand the world at breathtaking speed. The accelerating forces in his life are a counterweight to the deterioration in his father’s condition. ‘Both are engaged in a work of beyond-the-brink resourcefulness, an improvisatory balancing act, an enforced making up as they go along.’

The family as a unit are also feeling their way in uncharted territory. ‘Tom’s is a high-speed disease with full, motorway pile-up repercussions. It does not pause to allow you to admire the view from anywhere, How many times do I think, Now we really are in trouble?’ And each time the family look back at all the preceding occasions when they’ve said exactly that and realise they seem manageable and benign in retrospect compared with the present calamity.

Marion charts Tom’s decline and her reactions and Ev’s development with an unvarnished and unflinching honesty. Short staccato sentences somehow capture the moments of panic, the heart-stopping dread, the breathless anticipation of what’s coming. Descriptions devoid of self-pity make the enormity all the more raw.

‘In the giant city State of the hospital, new doctors take up their posts in early August and the convulsion of their arrival continues until the end of the month when gone-away staff return from the beaches and rocks of France and Croatia to face the great wave of September’s fresh sick and maimed. Emails go unanswered, messages do not get passed on, dates for procedures come and go, Post-it notes go missing and questions float wistfully in the air. Meanwhile we, outside the institution, outside of everything, are well under way on our own steam. We howl along, all three of us together, with knocks and shocks and sudden up-speedings round curves skewed tight enough to spill us right out, and our bones and skin are broken and torn but there is always more bones and skin to be mangled. Like a miraculous Catholic bloody endurance sport, there is always more. In the space of three weeks, between us we have had hospital stays, fits, diarrhoea, speech loss, tonsillitis, swollen feet, mobility loss, demoralisation, ambulances, glue ear and holidays – everything happens always and forever, on holiday. But we are not tourists. We travel tightly baggaged with our lives. There is nothing left at home.’

Her very writing style, confident and semi-detached and analytical, sets her apart as in control; but the half-buried casual confessions reveal her vulnerability. As she finds: ‘The weak are held close and given tea. They are hugged and warmed by the fire. The strong are revered but kept at a distance.’

Published last year, The Iceberg has been shortlisted for three major literary prizes and longlisted for another one. Wow! Tom, familiar with the literary world, would have been proud of his wife’s achievement. I, for my part, found some aspects of the book irritating, some bewildering, but in many other ways it echoed my own account of a slow death in Right to Die; a kind of real-life authentication of my fiction.

, , , , , , ,

Comments

Austen revisited

I’m intrigued. The name Val McDermid doesn’t conjure up pictures of muslin dresses and mincing men and gentle romance, does it? Far from it. But here she is re-writing Jane Austen – well, not the whole bang shoot; Northanger Abbey to be precise.

It’s part of the Austen project: six contemporary authors were asked to rework these famous classics in whatever way they choose. Not surprisingly there have been a fair few swift intakes of breath at the sheer audacity of such an exercise. I mean, Jane Austen? THE Jane Austen? Come on! Quite understandably some reviewers have been prejudiced against it from the outset.

Northanger AbbeyI confess I’m a convinced Austenite myself, and I personally didn’t want anyone to ruin her work for me either. That’s possibly why I turned to Northanger Abbey revisited first – my least favourite, and the least well-known, of her novels – well, that and because I was given it for Christmas.

The modern story is cleverly set in Edinburgh at the time of the Book Festival – I’m instantly totally at home! It moves to the abbeys in the Borders – familiar territory again. Both chosen by McDermid to reflect the essential characteristics of the original settings and thereby sustain the plot.

In brief … Cat Morland is a naive, home-schooled 17 year old from a sheltered background who lives life through fiction. So much so indeed that she believes novels to be source books for real life. When she meets the rich, handsome, well educated Henry Tilney she is captivated. By the time she arrives at his ancestral pile, she has woven deep dark secrets into the mysterious Northanger Abbey, convinced that it will reveal unimaginable horrors. And indeed the magnificent abbey becomes the personification of all her fantasies rolled into one. Secret compartments, forbidden corridors, locked rooms, bullet holes in a family Bible, a beautiful but deceased mother who mustn’t be mentioned, a Jekyll-and-Hyde patriarch, sudden departures … all fuel her imagination.

Reading Val’s own explanation for her choices – voice, setting, characters, plot – gives me additional respect for her skill, her versatility, and the seriousness with which she approached this commission. She has indeed been sensitive to the original. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two versions is the way the authors handle the suspense. We know from hindsight that boy gets girl – no cliff hanger there then. Austen also gave away the mystery early on, choosing to let the will-they/won’t-they element in the romance alone carry the reader through. McDermid – as befits a crack crimewriter – keeps the reader wondering ‘why’ right to the end … although the denouement when it came seemed ridiculously tame to me compared with the build up. But that really wasn’t the point of the exercise. The point is that Austen knew what makes people tick; her books are a reflection of real life. And McDermid has echoed the emotional intimacies of teenage girls, the obsessions of rank and heritage, the arrogance of handsome buccaneers, the blindness and ambitions of parenthood, the hypocrisy and humour of polite society. She has simply brought them up to the present day. In my back yard!

, , , , , ,

Comments