“I’m not creating God; I’m reality’s gaoler.” Everyone Brave is Forgiven, Chris Cleave

Eventbrite - THE BOOKS THAT BUILT ME: CHRIS CLEAVE, 17TH JANUARY 2017

‘War was declared at 11.15 and Mary North signed up at noon‘. So begins Chris Cleave’s brilliant, immensely satisfying fourth novel. Inspired by family wartime letters and diaries, Everyone Brave is Forgiven tells the story of four friends caught up in the war; each heartbreakingly courageous in the face of its vivid cruelties, and captures everything of the resilience and pluck of that time, both on the front line and on the home front. Powerful and moving, it’s note perfect:  the dialogue has all the clipped subtlety of a Mrs Miniver or In Which We Serve or of Greene and Balchin, yet underpinned by its characters human frailty and a wry, mordant sense of humour too.

What’s more, Cleave cleverly pries beneath the familiar backdrop of the Blitz and the front, and shows us the forgotten stories: the plight of black (and disabled) children, not considered ‘suitable’ for evacuation to the country and the increasingly grim privations of the Siege of Malta.

Whilst the book’s plot is an invention, its genesis was Cleave’s way of connecting to his grandparent’s wartime experiences – his grandfather was stationed in Malta, his paternal grandmother, Margaret Slater, drove ambulances in the Blitz and his maternal grandmother, Mary West, was a teacher who ran her own school and kindergarten. As Cleave says in his afterword, ‘Theirs was a generation whose choices were made quickly, through bravery and instinct, and whose hopes always hung by a thread. They had to have enormous faith in life and in one another. they wrote letters in ink, and these missives might take weeks or months to get through if they made it at all. Because a letter meant so much, they poured themselves into each one – as f there might be no more paper, no more ink, no more animating hand.

It’s rare I put everything aside so I can finish a novel in a single day (I wish Middlemarch would have the same effect, for all Virginia Woolf called it ‘one of the few English novels for grown-up people’), but Cleave’s involving characters hold you captive in their world and you can’t bear to put the book down until you’ve discovered what happens to them, admired their courage and asked yourself the question; would I have been as brave if I were in their shoes? I can’t help but feel I would have found myself falling short of the standard set by Mary, Alistair, Tom and Hilda.

In his afterword, Cleave writes, “If you will forgive the one piece of advice a writer is qualified to give: never be afraid of showing someone you love a working draft of yourself. – when asked if he’d learned other lessons from writing that he’d like to pass on, he said;

“I’ve learned that real life is more mysterious, frightening and fragile than anything one can make up. I’ve learned that real life doesn’t think freakish coincidences are a hackneyed plot device. Neither does real life shy away from destroying someone just because he or she is a sympathetic character.

Gloriously, I’ve also learned that people you meet in real life are very unrealistic. The marvellous problem for fiction is to capture this preposterous, implausible and blazingly eccentric life, and to put it in a cell overnight, to sober it up until it reads believably on the page. That’s what a novelist is: I’m not a creating God, I’m reality’s gaoler.”

Join me on Tuesday 17th January to discover how Chris Cleave taught himself to be ‘reality’s gaoler‘ as we discuss the books that built him. Tickets are available via the eventbrite link below and include a copy of Everyone Brave is Forgiven, a glass of Champagne Bollinger, a bar of Prestat chocolate and a six month subscription to Harper’s Bazaar.

Eventbrite - THE BOOKS THAT BUILT ME: CHRIS CLEAVE, 17TH JANUARY 2017

Podcast: Sarah Churchwell on The Ambassadors: Henry James

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The Ambassadors is arguably the greatest of Henry James’ late works, and his own favourite of his novels. In it, Lambert Strether is sent by his wealthy fiancée to Paris to rescue her son from what is presumed to be the clutches of a gold-digging temptress. When he arrives, he discovers Chad needs very little rescuing, and far from being a den of iniquity, Paris – and the people he meets – is sophisticated, cultured and charming.
I met with Sarah Churchwell to talk about Henry James,her introduction to the new Everymans Library edition of the novel, Americans in Paris, and why reading Henry James is infinitely less daunting than one might suppose.

The Ambassadors, Henry James. With an introduction by Sarah Churchwell. Everymans Library

 

Hanif Kureishi, In the Psychiatrists Chair

FullSizeRender (5)Between 1982 and 2001, Professor Anthony Clare, interviewed the great and the good for the BBC Radio Four programme, In the Psychiatrist’s Chair, gently probing and pulling away at their public selves to reveal their interior lives. They make fascinating listening and the marvellous BBC has them all available to download as podcasts here.

At Polly Samson’s Books That Built Me, we talked about the freedom Elena Ferrante ‘s anonymity gives her to write with coruscating honesty what are clearly very autobiographical novels. I was thinking about the line trodden by novelists who mine their own experience and past whilst listening to Hanif Kureishi’s In the Psychiatrists Chair, recorded in 1998.

After the publication of The Buddha of Suburbia,  his sister accused him in the Guardian of selling the family “down the line” with his portrait of their parents and grandparents. This is what Kureishi had to say:

“The past is only a playground: you can do there what you wish, you can say whatever you want, everyone has their own version. There’s no sense in which we can go back there and check. The past is something that we do things with: I make up stories about it. I mean there are a million version of my past that I could give to you – of anybody’s past – I think, what would it interest me to talk about today, what version would I prefer?…Our versions of the past are composed of wishes…”

The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford

CECCONIS THE GOOD SOLDIER MRS TREFUSIS

This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” 

The opening of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, is up there with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” and “It was a bright, cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen” as one of the most memorable first lines in fiction. It’s also one of the most misleading; you assume it’s a statement of fact – but you’re no further than the end of the first chapter before you begin to question its trustworthiness. Dowell, the book’s narrator, is not simply telling the story, he is the story – so from whom has he ‘heard’ it? From that moment, the reader begins to suspect that Dowell is acompromised narrator, and at the least, unreliable, albeit in a sense that he doesn’t always ‘know how to put this thing down.’ 

On the surface, the story seems not to be complicated: two well-born couples, one English, the Ashburnhams, one American – John Dowell and his wife Florence, meet at a German spa town, where they become ‘a four-square coterie‘ and spend a companionable ‘nine years of uninterrupted tranquility‘ together until it’s discovered that Florence Dowell has been having an affair with Captain Ashburnham, the ‘Good Soldier’ of the story. But Ford’s great skill lies not in exploring the nuances of a conventional love-triangle (love quadrangle?), but in unpicking, and gradually revealing and concealing and revealing again in Dowell’s uncertain, bumbling impressions, confessions and revelations, the empty, desolate heart of both marriages. It’s a story in which there are neither heroes nor villains, only delusions, self-deceptions and tragic, shameful concealed truths. The Ashburnhams – ‘quite good people’ – haven’t said a word to each other in private for years, yet appear to be a model couple – Florence Dowell’s ill-health for which her husband has worked to create a ‘shock-proof world’ is nothing more than an elaborate charade to conceal an illicit relationship pre-marriage. Yet their spouses aren’t deceived innocents, but utterly complicit. It is the saddest story.

 So where are we with the ‘ever heard’? In as much as Florence has deceived Dowell, he has conspired with the deception. Leonora Ashburnham goes out of her way to constantly uncover her husband’s philanderings and debts whilst rigorously maintaining the front of being ‘quite good people’ and behaving as quite good people might be expected to. Dowell is different – he refuses to believe the evidence in front of him, he is immune to his wife’s aunt’s dark warnings and seems almost able to ignore the truth of Florence’s past when a perfect stranger blurts it out to him. So he has had to be told, he has had to listen to his own story, and that distancing ‘that I have ever heard‘ underscores the tragedy, it is something he has heard, it is hearsay, it may not be true?


Julian Barnes calls Madox Ford ‘a proper reader’s writer‘ – I love him because I enjoy his ingenious manipulation of the reader – he’s not considered a modernist, and yet, on the evidence of The Good Soldier, I challenge anyone not to garland him with as many laurels for technical brilliance as Woolf or Joyce. Susan Hill with whom I’ll discuss the book tomorrow at her Books That Built Me calls it ‘the perfect novel form’.  I keep coming back to The Good Soldier and every time I’m blown away by Ford’s extraordinary control over his novel – it is perfection, and I always wonder, ‘just how does he do it’.

Susan Hill, who chose it as one of her books that built me, says that ‘this is very much a book that comes high on my list of how to learn to be a writer by reading other people who are doing it better than you ever will….I learn from this all the time and I would die happy if I could write a book as great as To The Lighthouse, but ifonly I could crack the way Ford Madox Ford makes this [The Good Soldier] work in terms of shape and structure and narrative as well as a superb book about love and betrayal and death and lying and deceit  – it’s so clever – this is a book taht you don’t read too young; every time I read it it is like a lesson, and it never can go back to being just a novel for me.”

[Susan Hill, speaking at The Books That Built Me, December 2015]

To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

to the lighthouse

I’ve re-read To The Lighthouse twice this year – first for Deborah Moggach’s Books That Built Me, and then again for Susan Hill’s.

It’s Woolf’s crowning achievement, I think. As a devotee of Mrs Dalloway, it has taken me a while to see that, but it is true.  Woolf herself wrote to Vita Sackville West “the dinner party the best thing I ever wrote: the one thing that I think justifies my faults as a writer…“. She also sent her a copy inscribed, ‘in my opinion the best novel I have ever written’. Inside Vita found all the pages blank.

I fell across a letter of hers to Roger Fry earlier today, written towards the end of May, 1927, a few weeks after its publication –

“My Dear Roger, 

[…] I meant nothing by The Lighthouse. One has to have a central line down the middle of the book to hold the design together. I saw that all sorts of feelings would accrue to this, but I refused to think them out, and trusted that people would make it the deposit for their own emotions – which they have done, one thinking it means one thing another another. I can’t manage Symbolism except in this vague, generalised way. Whether it’s right or wrong I don’t know, but directly I’m told what a thing means, it becomes hateful to me. […]

Yr

V.W”

I promise I will write in more detail about Susan Hill’s Books That Built Me before this year is much older, but one of the things she and I discussed in relation to Woolf, and particularly To The Lighthouse, is that an author must learn to trust the reader, to not feel compelled to spell things out, to take them from A to B to C, but to understand that the reader is clever enough to feel their own way, to pick up the trail of clues – to ‘make it the deposit for their own emotions’.