Hazel McHaffie

research

People of the Book

I love discovering a new-to-me author who inspires me. This time it’s Geraldine Brooks. With nearly 400 pages of quite densely printed text, People of the Book needed time and mental space, so I waited for some downtime between assorted deadlines to open it. Once I did, I was hooked!

It’s a work of fiction but inspired by the true story of a Hebrew codex known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. This, one of the earliest illustrated medieval Hebrew books, first came to the attention of scholars in Sarajevo in 1894, when it was offered for sale by an indigent Jewish family. All that could be ascertained was that it had been made in Spain, possibly in the mid-fourteenth century. By 1609 the haggadah had found its way to Venice where the signature of a Catholic priest saved it from the  book burnings of the Pope’s Inquisition. Not a lot to go on, you might think! But the clever juxtaposition of known facts and imagined back-stories makes the whole history come alive and feel authentic. Add to that the authority of the author – a foreign correspondent who covered the Bosnian war from Sarajevo for The Wall Street Journal; who witnessed the destruction of museums and libraries holding priceless manuscripts – and you have a winning combination.

At the time of the Bosnian conflict, the fate of the precious Sarajevo Haggadah, the jewel in the collection, was unknown, but the subject of much journalistic speculation. However, reporter Geraldine Brooks was granted permission to actually see the real thing being restored under heavy guard in 2001 at the European Union Bank. In tracing a fictional journey across countries, and centuries, through wars and persecutions, against different cultures and religions, it’s small wonder she became overwhelmed by the task she’d taken on, and needed to take a couple of years out. It would represent a life’s work for most people, I suspect! My precis here will be inadequate, but hopefully it will tempt you to read it for yourself, and be amazed in your turn.

Dr Hanna Heath is an extremely meticulous conservator of medieval manuscripts who lives in Sydney, Australia. She comes with a stream of qualifications: double honours in chemistry and ancient Near Eastern languages, masters in chemistry, PhD in fine art conservation … oh, and she’s passionate about her job.

When she’s invited to Bosnia to work with a very rare and beautiful object, the Sarajevo Haggadah, a lavishly and exquisitely illuminated Hebrew manuscript, she goes to the length of creating vellum herself by scouring the fat off a meter of calf intestine with a pumice stone, and making gold leaf from scratch, in order to understand how books were created 600 years ago, such is her need to be both accurate and true.

The precious manuscript needs some stabilisation work before it’s exhibited. No conservator has touched it for a hundred years, but it has been mishandled by non experts for years, and now the trick is to work so well that there’s no sign anyone has worked on it at all. But as well as conserving the parchment physically, it’s Hanna’s job to learn its history  Every shred of dust, every sliver, every fragment, every stain, offers a clue, tells a story. The veining on a piece of insect wing shows it comes from a particular species of butterfly only found high up in the Alps; a stain of kosher wine proves to be contaminated with someone’s blood; crystals indicate a splash by seawater; a hair from the throat area of a Persian long-haired cat tracks to a special kind of paintbrush … They throw up endless questions:
… why would an illuminator working in Spain, for a Jewish client, in the manner of a European Christian, have used an Iranian paintbrush?

With so much information, structure is vitally important. Dr Hanna Heath is at the centre – working on the manuscript in the 21st century, but uncovering clues to the past as she goes. Interspersed between each new discovery is the story of how these things came about; the lives entwined with the ancient parchment, unravelling backwards in time.

There’s Lola, a young Jewish laundress, who escapes from the round up of Jews in Sarajevo and flees to the mountains where she joins an order of resistance fighters until she’s abandoned, cold, hungry and despairing, and returns to the city. There she’s rescued by a wealthy and learned Muslim, Serif Kamal and his wife, Stela. Serif is the librarian at the museum who’s entrusted to take care of the haggadah to preserve it from the destruction and looting overtaking their city. But once he has this priceless artefact in his possession, none of them are safe. So Serif takes it high into the mountains to a devout Muslim who squirrels it away in the library of his mosque, between volumes of Islamic law – the last place anyone would go looking for an ancient Jewish manuscript!

Before this, a dying bookbinder, Florien Mittl, ravaged by end-stage syphilis, already suffering from paranoid delusions, is commissioned to rebind the haggadah in ‘Vienna, although these days he can hardly recall the sequence of steps in the process. However, he’s desperate for money for a cure for his disease, so he’s prepared to desecrate the priceless book in order to gain generous remuneration: he removes the exquisitely wrought silver clasps in exchange for experimental treatment.

Further back again, in Venice, a trembling alcoholic priest, Father Giovanni Domenico Vistorini, is living a double life in several directions. He’s a lover of books and language, and yet, as censor for the Inquisition, destined to consign beautiful works, ‘blasphemous’ texts, to the flames. His old acquaintance, the Jewish rabbi, Judah Aryeh, is in possession of the Sarajevo haggadah, and because of his addictions, the fate of this beautiful object comes to rest on a gamble. It’s Vistorini’s wine and blood that stains the ancient parchment.

Back we go to the actual formation of the book. A sofer, David Ben Shoushan, sees the potential of a set of glorious gold leaf paintings, and has the stamina to painstakingly inscribe the Hebrew text to go with them – we watch his hand trembling as he moves from ink bottle to parchment, crafting those precise letters, willing him not to blot the parchment. The pages and paintings are placed in the greasy hands of a double-dealing bookbinder, Micha, along with Shoushan’s wife’s silver which will be crafted into beautiful clasps to make the finished product a bridal gift fit for a king.  But before David Ben Shoushan can even see the end result, the Spanish Inquisition close their murderous claws around his family, and the precious haggadah is smuggled out and into new dangers. It’s when a Gentile baby is being ritually baptised in the sea to welcome him into the Jewish faith, that a few drops of saltwater splash on the manuscript leaving a residue of crystals that will last for hundreds of years.

The life of a black Jewess, Zahra bint Ibrahim al-Tarek, is abruptly changed each time she’s moved on … from her home in Infriqiya where she learned to illustrate her father’s medical texts … into captivity … from thence to living in an emir’s palace as a fine painter of his wife’s likeness … and then to work for a Jewish doctor who had admired her medical illustrations for years. One major loss after another deepens her awareness of herself and the dark side of life. Having been entranced by an exquisite Christian Book of Hours filled with luminous illustrations for each prayer which the emira Isabella used for her devotions, Zahra sets about creating a story of the world as the Jews understand it to have come to be, for the doctor’s deaf-mute son, Benjamin. With no higher motive than to make the boy want to look at each picture and understand what it conveys, she concentrates on making the pictures as vibrant and appealing as she can. Indeed, so determined is she to project the right sense that sometimes she’s profoundly disturbed by the representations herself. The fine paint brushes she uses are made of cat fur and it’s one such hair marked with saffron dye that Dr Heath finds hundreds of years later.

The beautiful and intricate story of the creation and preservation and survival of this amazing book, is well matched by the meticulous research of the author. Whether it’s history across the ages, ethnic cleansing, ancient language and literature, the geography of cities around the world, different religions and their customs, diseases and their treatments, gambling in the seventeenth century, music, art, architecture, food, laboratory techniques or the structure of hair, you feel to be in safe hands with Geraldine Brooks.

Rather like the Sarajevo haggadah, a book to savour and treasure indeed.

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Understanding alternative lives

In my former life as a university researcher, I had the amazing privilege of delving deep into the lives of people grappling with major problems and dilemmas related to their medical care, understanding their responses, exploring their opinions. I sat for hours and hours (the record being five and a quarter at one sitting!) with parents who had faced the terrible ordeal of losing beloved babies. I spent days in a hospice devoted to the care of patients with full blown AIDS at the height of the HIV crisis, watching helplessly as young men wasted away and died agonising deaths. I’ve sat in wards and clinics variously with infertile couples, prostitutes, terrified new mothers. Not only has my life been enriched by all these encounters, but I like to hope I’ve become more insightful and empathetic as a result.

And I’ve taken that same kind of philosophy into my current work. With each new novel my eyes, ears and antennae are tuned to anything that will give me deeper awareness and understanding. Along the way I’ve met and listened to the experience and opinions and inner thinking of organ donors and recipients; people who’ve changed gender; families traumatised by illness, death and dementia; patients themselves suffering slow degenerative illnesses; campaigners struggling to achieve justice and equality for the disadvantaged and neglected. Humbling and revealing.

At the moment I’m trying to get inside the skin of families and individuals who struggle behind closed doors, where relationships are fraught. A surprisingly large number of books on my shelves take me inside those facades, and three in particular have made painful reading recently, opening my eyes to the horrors some children endure and sometimes transcend.

The Little Prisoner by Jane Elliott reveals the seventeen years of horrific abuse one girl suffered at the hands of her depraved stepfather. She spent her entire childhood in fear and dread, controlled by threat and violence. Even when she did eventually find the courage to report him, even when he was locked up, he still managed to wreak fearful retribution on her via his relatives. Writing about her life, she was obliged to use pseudonyms to avoid worse. And her mother – her biological MOTHER! – was complicit in all this.

Behind Closed Doors by Jenny Tomlin tells the story of a young girl who also endured appalling abuse – physical, emotional and sexual – at the hands of her sadistic and depraved father. Again, a significant family member in a position of trust. Again the biological mother knew and turned a blind eye. In Jenny’s case the child grew up in a filthy flat forced to witness her mother being beaten and raped on a daily basis, her young sisters being sexually abused, her whole family being humiliated and ostracised. And yet a strong resilient woman emerged from this chaos, determined to foster love and trust and decency in her own children (one of whom is the singer actress Martine McCutcheon).

I Choose to Live (mentioned last week) is an amazingly frank account of Belgian Sabine Dardenne’s life during her kidnap ordeal. Her abuser was not a parent, he was a stranger, but she endured the agonies of feeling she had been abandoned by her family, and her relationships afterwards were significantly altered by the experiences, distortions and reactions everyone suffered.

To an extent we’ve all been exposed to the fact of child abuse.  Most recently, simply hearing about the case of little Poppi Worthington, almost certainly sexually abused to death at the tender age of 13 months by her father, made the blood run cold. Evil of such magnitude, masquerading in an everyday disguise, is as hard to comprehend as that which leads dictators to massacre thousands in acts of ethnic cleansing. The images haunt our screens and thoughts – especially where the authorities can’t or don’t exact any form of justice. The chilling reality of these intimate tragedies is captured in these three books, revealed bravely by three women who endured such relentless nightmares. I felt hugely sad and sobered, despairing at times, simply listening to them.

Bullies can only operate when other people are too frightened, ashamed or embarrassed to talk about what is being done to them.‘ Jane Elliott

Evil is unspectacular and always human, and shares our bed and eats at our table. WH Auden

Will I have the courage and fortitude to see my own current novel to its end? Not that the subject matter is anything like as horrific as that described in these books, but any child suffering has the capacity to cut to the heart. Time will tell.

 

 

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Literary fiction: profound or sleep-inducing?

An essential part of a writer’s life is reading. Reading voraciously. Reading widely. Reading critically. Reading. Reading. Reading.

OK. No problem there. I love reading. I read every single day. My shelves are permanently stacked with books. And I owe my career to the authors whose books I’ve devoured. But some are indisputably more daunting than others, and so-called literary fiction is one category that I have to approach with determination; as regular visitors to my blog know, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with it. But maybe I should rapidly mend my ways.

Researchers at Stanford University found that fiction helps readers to empathise more with other people, and the deeper the book delves into the characters the more the reader ‘walks in their shoes.’ So it’s official! Just as we always knew. Reading not only broadens the mind but it makes one a more empathetic human being. Well, but hang on a minute … maybe the conclusion rings true, but see here as to whether or not this claim can really be justified from this particular study.

But I digress. I do actually make concerted efforts periodically to try to get a handle on what’s acknowledged by the literati as meritorious writing. And the summer time seemed like a good time to soak up some healthy rays and dig into an acknowledged high quality piece of writing.

The Photograph

So that’s why Penelope Lively‘s work came under my microscope. Now in her eighties, Lively has yards of prestigious awards to her credit, including the Booker Prize and the Carnegie Medal for British children’s books. An OBE, CBE and DBE track her recognition from 1989 till she was made a Dame in 2012. So she’s indisputably masterclass level, right? Sit at her feet and learn.

What then of her 2003 novel, The Photograph? It opens with the discovery of an envelope buried in a mountain of papers in a cupboard in widower Glyn’s house. Lightly pencilled on it is an instruction in the unmistakable hand of his deceased wife, Kath: DON’T OPEN – DESTROY. Compelled by curiosity however, he ignores the instruction and finds a photograph of Kath holding hands with another man. And not just any other man; a man whom Glyn knows very well. Glyn becomes obsessed by this revelation and one by one he drags others into his relentless and reckless search for the truth about the wife he thought he knew.

Sounds like a fair enough plot, yes? It was attractive enough to make me buy the book anyway.

But as with most literary fiction the pace is very … very … slow. The characters are revealed very … very … slowly with attention to tiny… tiny … details. What’s more the revelation when it comes is hardly earth-shattering; I guessed from early on how Kath died (not revealed until P208 of 236) and what troubled her. So what kept me reading? Sheer obstinacy – I’ve started so I’ll finish. Plus an appreciation of the mastery of the author’s language. Undisputed. A couple of examples will suffice:

No people here; the insect-crawl of cars. Glyn’s house is lost now, digested into the urban mass, a tiny box in a row of similar boxes. And the mass itself, the inscrutable complex muddle, bleeds away at its edges, getting sparser and sparser until it is lapped entirely by space. Or rather, by spaces – squares and triangles and rectangles ad oblongs and distorted versions of such shapes, edged sometimes with dark ridges. Dark spongy masses, long pale lines slicing away into the distance. Here and there a miniature version of the city density, a little concentration of energy at the confluence of lines. And then eventually space gives way – there’s a spillage, seepage, a burgeoning unrest that condenses once more into city format: the enigmatic fusion of now and then, everything happening at once.’

Aged 4, Kath is ‘a local distraction on the fringes of my [her 10-year old sister’s] vision.

And then there’s the resonance with the essential truths about people which Lively recognises:

Behaviour that is engaging in someone of twenty-five becomes less so at forty, let alone at fifty-eight. Where once she was beguiled, she has for many years been exasperated, though exasperated in the tempered, low-key way of long-standing acceptance.’  … ‘He remained in a time-warp of feckless adolescence.

She is fragmented now. The dead don’t go; they just slip into other people’s heads.’

‘The world smiles on the physically attractive …’

So, a classic example of literary fiction? A work of literary merit that offers deliberate social commentary or political criticism? Or one which focuses in some profound or moving way on the individual in order to explore some part of the human condition? Yee…esss. Or, if you’re a closet-philistine, a work as dull and pointless as reading the dictionary because nothing exciting happens? Which camp do you fall into, I wonder?

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Body image

The end of a year is traditionally when one takes stock before resolving to do better in the future, so in this spirit, on the very last day of 2014, I shall share one of my (many) failings with you.

I’m one of those countless people who feel dissatisfied with what they see in the mirror … in spite of being told donkeys years ago by a lovely man (himself a skilled potter) in our church that it’s a sin to do so on the grounds that the insignificant clay pot has no business criticising its all-powerful Maker. Sorry Derrick, but I genuinely do sympathise with folk who don’t like the casing they come in for whatever reason, and my personal problems are compounded at this precise moment by the ongoing necessity to define myself as ‘ill’. Me? I’m the strong energetic type who can rise above all weakness and still live life at a hundred miles an hour … Not any more it seems – at least not until the cardiologists ‘fix’ me! Since October when these shenanigans with my recalcitrant heart began, I’ve been aware of the need to consciously work at keeping my mood buoyant in the face of physical frailty. I don’t like what I see or feel.

So I suspect it wouldn’t take the genius of Freud to deduce that that abiding angst has quite a bit to do with my present conflict with my writing about body image. I’m struggling with the effort of trying to stay inside the skin of some of my characters who are even more tortured than I am. Body image, huh? Big subject. Cue size zero models, toddlers dressed provocatively, the obesity epidemic, self harming, cyber bullying, celebrity culture, cosmetic enhancement … you know the kinds of things our society is obsessed by nowadays. So where am I with it at the end of this chequered year?

Books on eating disordersRemember this row of books I bought by way of research a while back? Well, I’ve now read them all. Phew. Good job I’m stubborn! You’ll have noted that I haven’t reviewed any of them in this blog. Why? Because I don’t think you’d be interested. But for my own records I kept a tally of my assessment of them as I went – just a brief resume and my score out of 5. Hmm. Only three stood out as an enjoyable read, but, in fairness, a large percentage are teen fiction which isn’t my bag. Having read them all, though, I’m confirmed in my resolve a) not to write for young adults; b) not to focus on anorexia but to embrace a wider context; c) to strengthen the hooks to keep readers reading.

Question now is: can this new, more-fragile me personally cope with taking on a story which presents a much more challenging set of issues? Only time will tell.

However, thus far, I haven’t been dragged below the plimsoll line of my own tolerances, but total absorption with this topic would definitely not be good for my mental health – goodness, I’m borderline neurotic as it is! I’m also conscious of another phenomenon: the more I grapple with my characters’ uncomfortable emotions, the less they disturb me. So it will be important to remember my own initial reactions in order to be sensitive to the potential shock or outrage or revulsion or whatever of my potential readers coming to this subject without preparation.

Work to do then. But there’s a silver lining. At least when I’m absorbed in the lives of my protagonists l’m not sighing at the mirror! And I did get a stack of Christmas knitting done as I ploughed through this set of books. So it’s an ill wind …

Polo jumpers

Boys pullovers

So, here we are at the end of 2014. Thank you so much for visiting my scribblings. Special appreciation to those who’ve taken the trouble to contact me; it’s so heartening to hear about your thoughts and reactions and simply to know you really are out there. And I wish you all – whatever your hang-ups and issues – peace, health and happiness in 2015.

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