Hazel McHaffie

integrity

What’s in a name?

Today’s post emerges from two people who share a name and whose actions have impinged upon my life as a writer.

The first is Marcel Proust, said to be one of the greatest French authors of the 20th Century. OK, he died in 1922, when my mother was 2 years old – so why is he affecting me in 2017?

Well, one of my pet hates is people who endlessly trumpet their own success or brilliance. It happens sometimes on social media, but at least then you usually know who the guilty party is and can assess/dismiss their accolades for what they’re worth. It’s a different matter when they do it incognito. Over the years, various people – reporters, other authors – have exposed writers for faking reviews of their own books and there’s widespread condemnation for such practices.

So it’s something of a paradox that big money is being made out of fraud that predates electronic communication and computers. But so it is. Letters Proust wrote to his editor have recently come to light which show that he employed his legendary literary skill to write superlative reviews of his own novels – really over-the-top, immodest attributions, I mean; comparing himself favourably to Charles Dickens – which were then published under other names or anonymously. And what’s more, his publisher was complicit in this practice.

The letters were discovered in a rare early copy of one of his books – whoops! But those same letters are now themselves going under the hammer at the end of this month and are expected to realise a handsome sum – and I’m talking hundreds of thousands of pounds here! Of course, it’s only because Proust’s work is so highly respected that there’s such a stooshie but still …

What a weirdly convoluted world we live in. I may be (I am!) too backward in coming forward where my own books are concerned, but my conscience is more at ease with that than it ever could be with indecent or unsavoury or unethical promotion.

The second Marcel is actually Marcelle: Marcelle Bernstein. Heard of her? Probably not  – although she’s a woman of distinction with several awards under her belt. And I’m sure she has never stooped to boost her own profile by anything so ill-judged as Proust. I mention her for quite a different reason. I loved her book Sacred and Profane when I read it years ago, but until this week I’d never got around to reading anything else she’s written. When Body and Soul came to the top of my tbr pile, of course, the shared name struck me as an interesting coincidence.

The author, Bernstein, herself has actually lived in a Carmellite convent as part of her research for a documentary about the life of the religious, and she can write about the inner turmoils as well as the outer deprivations with some authority and understanding. So perhaps it’s not surprising that both Sacred and Profane and Body and Soul are set in nunneries.

I’ve reviewed Sacred and Profane (1995) elsewhere so I’ll limit my comments to Body and Soul (1991) which I’ve just finished reading. Perhaps my expectations were too high but I confess I was disappointed this time around. Sister Gabriel (Anna in the outside world) is in her early thirties and struggling with her vows after 13 years in a closed contemplative order in Wales. Her inner anguish is exposed to greater scrutiny when her brother Simon commits suicide leaving behind a pregnant wife, two small boys, a stack of debts, and a failing woollen mill. Anna is given a rather begrudging dispensation to go out into the outside world to help her distraught sister-in-law, and suddenly she’s aware of how much isolation and seclusion from temptation have been protecting her from her own wants and needs. ‘The habit had been a medieval chrysalis, protecting her from the twentieth century. It had given her a version of herself she could no longer accept: too passive, too patient, negative.’

Once outside, this rather stern, solitary, sheltered woman falls prey to many a worldly emotion and lure. For me, I must confess, the plot was too thin, I didn’t care enough about the characters, and worse, Anna’s fall from grace simply didn’t ring true. Would a shy inhibited puritan with so many sexual hangups and taboos really submit so easily to the gropings of assorted men she’d just met? Would she abandon so many of her customary ingrained habits and adopt hitherto shunned and despised practices? I think not. So for me, this book was perfectly readable, but not believable or memorable.

Why then do I mention it? Because it reinforces the fact that reading is subjective, that an author will probably not please all the people all the time, that research only takes a novelist so far, and that one can never rest on one’s laurels in this business. Even a book loved decades ago might not appeal where the same reader is today. All important lessons for me as a writer and my own most severe critic.

 

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Amsterdam

Last week I mentioned the book I was carting round with me for odd moments of distraction: 1998 Booker winner, Amsterdam by Ian McEwan. In the end I couldn’t get into it with so much distraction, so I saved it for a free afternoon. Wise decision.

It’s a chilly February day. Two men, lopsided friends of long standing, attend the funeral of a woman they have both loved (with a family funeral looming this week this instantly resonated with me). Vernon Halliday is the fifth editor of a London newspaper, The Judge, doing his best to reverse declining circulation figures. Clive Linley is Britain’s most successful modern composer, searching for an elusive masterpiece.

Both were former lovers of the beautiful Molly Lane whose cremation they are attending. Molly – ‘restaurant critic, gorgeous wit and photographer, the darling gardener who had been loved by the Foreign Secretary and could still turn a perfect cartwheel at the age of forty-six.’ Molly – the speed of whose descent into ‘madness and pain‘ had become the subject of widespread gossip; and who lost control of both bodily functions and seemly behaviour.

Having seen Molly’s ignominious end, both men, harbouring secret fears about their own health, make a pact with the other that will have consequences neither intend or foresee.

Molly’s widower, George Lane, is a rich publisher given to wearing a silk dressing gown over his day clothes and favouring a ‘Buckingham Palace style‘ in house furnishings. He owns one and a half percent of the paper The Judge, but in reality knows little about the real world of business. His empire is built upon highly dubious and speculative publications.

The plot gathers momentum when incriminating photos of another of Molly’s lovers are discovered amongst her possessions. Foreign Secretary, Julian Garmony, is the man in question. His political star is in the ascendancy; he’s widely tipped to be the next prime minister, but Molly’s pictures of him reveal a very different story.

We know so little about each other. We lie mostly submerged, like ice floes, with our visible social selves projecting only cool and white. Here was a rare sight below the waves, of a man’s privacy and turmoil, of his dignity upended by the overpowering necessity of pure fantasy …

But there’s a small matter of morality at stake here. Should such private information become public knowledge? Can relationships survive disloyalty? Clive and Vernon both face serious moral challenges; both have reputations and jobs to lose. Greatness, genius, integrity, are ephemeral achievements, striven for over a lifetime, destroyed in an instant.

I approached this book with my usually cynicism about literary writing; I ended up agreeably surprised. At only 178 pages I read it in one sitting – always an advantage for holding the detail in my head. But better yet, the story has a message … and a plot … and was readable! … and by jingo! even a little dab of ethics!! Things are definitely looking up.

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Sock it to me

I’m sending this week’s post a day early because I’m off down south (near London) to lead workshops in medical ethics. A whole day of challenging people to think about my favourite subjects. Wahey!

And a welcome break, because I have to confess, I’ve been feeling rather discombobulated and chagrined this week. Why? Because the time is fast approaching for me to resolve the matter of how I publish Over My Dead Body, and the decision certainly wasn’t made any clearer when I delved into the whole business of trying to get one’s book noticed amongst the welter of volumes coming off the press every month. Which led me to marketing, publicity campaigns, reviews and networking … yawn, yawn.

Literary journals like The Author are packed with useful advice but they’re also brutally honest too, showing up pitfalls and problems – writers telling it just like it is for other writers. So it wasn’t long before I had to face some unpleasant truths. OK, most of us recognise that the odds are stacked against our wee book. We know all about the scramble for a share of the market, and that the winners are the ‘ones with the sharpest elbows‘, as Graham Joyce puts it.

But do we have to resort to dubious practices? I’m thinking of things likeconfused

– sock puppeteering (assuming a false online identity for the purpose of publishing superlative reviews on one’s own work);

– disparaging rival authors’ work under a pseudonym;

– rewarding bloggers in return for a favourable review;

– paying cash for a ‘book-of-the-month’ accolade.

to name but a few.

Surely one’s own personal integrity has to count for something – I for one want to sleep easy in my bed.

But for all us, squeaky clean though we may personally be, any attempt by even a few to distort the picture by the use of these unpleasant or unworthy or downright dishonest tactics devalues the very currency of reviews. Who will ever believe in us?

London here I come. Hopefully I shall come back a calmer person and the old subconscious will have sifted and sorted the pros and cons for me.

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