Monthly Archives: September 2015

Meeting A L Kennedy at the Guernsey Lit Festival

Last Saturday I got to meet a proper author. Not just a proper author but a particular favourite of mine, a lovely person and one of the MFA tutors to a friend: A L Kennedy (who can be found on twitter @Writerer and online @ her website). I’ve been a bit slow to write this up because this writing section of my life has been a shambles while I rushed and failed to get the radio play sorted before the BBC submissions window closed (more on which in another post shortly). But I am now back.

A, for Alison, hopped the ferry cross-channel to my island home for the Guernsey Literary Festival and was doing a mystery reading from, and Q&A about, the various projects she, being an insane workaholic, had completed the last year (short story collection, radio play, Doctor Who novel, grown-up novel, and other radio things).

She had charmed the day before with a reading from ‘Baby Blue’: a short story in which a woman finds herself unexpectedly in a sex shop. The author, I was told, had found herself unexpectedly reading this story to an audience containing some infant humans; so substitutions (‘lady-gardens’ and ‘gentlemen’s gardening equipment’) had to be made. On the Saturday she opted not to re-read that story as the event was happening in the Town Church*.

She read from her short story collection All The Rage (a happy ending, which is unusual for her) and from The Drosten’s Curse, her Doctor Who novel. She got a lot of laughs, answered some questions, and got some more. She was endeared to the audience and felt very much like she was in conversation with us. She is, in short, an excellent speaker.

This is a terrifying thing.

Because I am not.

I am, in fact, incontinently scared of standing up in front of people. This: public readings, interviews, talking eloquently and endearingly, is a major part of the business of writing. You can be paid to talk, it sells books, it sells you as a person. And This is not something I can do. At. All. I physically cannot make myself do it. Which is a bit of a problem, the solution to which I will have to figure out. If I do, I’ll write about it here. That’s what this blog is for. For the moment though, we will just log it as a bowel loosening fact to contend with at a later date.

That bit was the bad news. The good news was: I came away generally edified by seeing an artist do her thing, and talk about her thing, and do and talk about it well.

But there was also a bit of time to talk to her afterwards as she signed books. I remembered one of her students to her, and she signed a couple of books for me and I turned to move on.

However, my lady-friend, who had come with me out of love (she is not a great reader), pulled me back, locked eyes with Alison and began questioning her on advice for my writing year ahead.  As far as the LF was concerned we were gonna get our money’s worth. So we stopped and had a chat.

Well, they did at first; I actually found myself in that particularly unpleasant sort of social awkwardness where one realises one is being talked for and must fix this by saying something, ideally in your native language, and ideally not obscene. I did eventually managed to side step the word ‘gusset’ and ask some almost coherent questions myself. Which I am glad about because she was pleasant and helpful and treated the whole thing seriously.

That last bit particularly meant a lot. After all, as yet I have nothing to show for my writing except a lot of paper cuts and a wankers-cramp from too much typing. And for these cuts and cramps I am looking to abandon several of my safety nets: this island home, regular employment, painstakingly built and maintained social circles, my regular doctor, dentist, restaurants, watering holes and other familiar spots for quiet contemplation or painful health enforcement. From all these things I will be moving away to another city, where I will work part time and write.

To have such a ludicrous undertaking treated seriously by someone in the know, who had typed her way out of a drama-student’s poverty was encouraging and en-couraging.

So thank you, Alison, and Onwards.

*Churches on Guernsey are proliferate to the point that my old home was converted from old church rooms, which were themselves converted from the old church when a new church was built across the road. This church is also now residential houses. Both are about five hundred metres from one parish church down the road to the right, and another to the left. Victor Hugo noted the religious tolerance of the island during his exile here, he also noted that this tolerance only extended to other believers in Jesus.

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Reading List

I mentioned in my last post that one of my reading projects is to plug the literary gaps left by doing a science degree. The list is below, but I’ll caveat it first by saying that this isn’t meant to be comprehensive, the vast canon of things that exist is way too extensive. Given that I’ve other reading demands (research, style, erotic fulfilment) I figure that I am being optimistic even with my list of about 40 titles. Especially when those titles include Tom Jones and Middlemarch.

It’s also tailored to my particular reading history: there is no Dostoevsky on the list because I have read a fair amount of him fairly recently, no Sterne because my copy of Tristram Shandy is on loan indefinitely, and no Tolstoy because: Too. Many. Words. And I may need to read War and Peace as research for my current novel.

There’s also a bias towards the European tradition, although, particularly for foundational texts  like the Gita and The Qu’ran, I’ve tried to have a variety. This is because, being an English speaker, that is my cultural canon. I’ll be reading more world literature in future, I promise.

Your thoughts please in the comments:

August ‘15 (Ancient)

(X) Dammaphada – Anon

(X) Baghavad Gita – Anon

(/) The Old Testament – King James Authorised

September ‘15 (Greek)

( ) The Apocrypha – King James Authorised

( ) Lysistrata – Aristophanes

(X) The Oresteia – Aeschylus

(X) Electra – Euripides

(X) Antigone – Sophocles

October ’15 (Roman)

( ) The Aeneid – Virgil

( ) The Metamorphoses – Ovid

( ) The New Testament – King James Authorised

November ’15 (Early Medieval)

( ) The Qu’ran

( ) Tales From 1001 Nights – Anon

( ) Speaking of Siva – Various

( ) Inferno – Dante Alighieri

December ’15 (Late Medieval)

( ) The Saga of the Volsungs – Anon

( ) Canterbury Tales – Geoffrey Chaucer

( ) Decameron – Giovanni Boccacio

January ’16 (Renaissance)

( ) Monkey – Wu Cheng-En

( ) Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes

( ) Oorinoko – Aphra Behn

( ) Tale of a Tub – Jonathan Swift

February ’16 (1700s)

( ) Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe

( ) Wailing Ghosts – Pu Songling

( ) Tom Jones – Henry Fielding

( ) The Sorrows of a Young Werther – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

March ’16 (Early 1800s)

( ) Emma – Jane Austen

( ) Eugene Onegin – Alexander Pushkin

April ’16 (Early Mid 1800s)

( ) Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte

( ) Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

( ) Moby Dick – Herman Melville

May ’16 (Late-Mid 1800s)

( ) Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

( ) Fathers and Sons – Turgenev

(/) The Toilers of the Sea – Victor Hugo

June ’16 (Late-1800s)

( ) Middlemarch – George Eliot

( ) Germinal – Emile Zola

( ) Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy

July ’16 (1901 – 1918)

( ) Nostromo – Joseph Conrad

( ) The Rainbow – D H Lawrence

( ) Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – James Joyce

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I Learnt About Writing From That: The Oresteia

I am a writer, but have not read enough. As part of my self-education I am spending a large chunk of my reading time catching up on a sort of overview history of literature. Being white, male and British I’ve opted to get an overview of the western canon first, to wit I have given myself a list of about forty books to get through between 1st August 2015 and August next year. This month is the Ancient Greeks and first up was Aeschylus.

The Oresteia of Aeschylus, is a trilogy of plays that were written for performance together at the Dionysian festival in 458BCE. The Greek way of doing things would be to run three tragedies in a row and then a comedy: in this case Proteus which has not survived history to reach us.

The three plays: Agamemnon, The Choephoroi (or, The Libation Bearers) and The Eumenides (literally The Kind Ones, a somewhat ironic term for the Furies of Greek myth), come shortly on the heels of the Greek victory at Ilium. In the first we see the homecoming and mariticide of Agamemnon by Clytemnestra; in the second, the god driven, matricide of Clytemnestra by Orestes, her son, in vengeance; and in the third the cycle of violence is broken by the invention by Athena, god of wisdom, of a jury trial by which she appeases the furies who are hunting Orestes.

The particular translation I read was this one by Ted Hughes and where I refer to Aeschylus I really mean ‘Aeschylus, in translation by Ted Hughes’ a caveat you always have to bear in mind.

The BBC had previously aired a series of radio adaptations (available for free here, at the time of writing), and given my current project, it in this light I was reading the plays. What really struck me was firstly that Greek theatre is a whole lot of telling, rather than showing. In every play the murders occur off stage for example. But the issue of exposition which is so difficult in radio where one has to get your characters to describe what is happening in as natural way as possible, is done largely through the telling of tales.

For example the trilogy opens with a watchman looking out to sea, who in a long monologue sets the scene, the time and the place, with a prayer:

“You Gods in heaven –

You have watched me here on this tower

All night, every night, for twelve months

Maybe it will never come –

A beacon-flare that leaps from peak to peak

Bringing news from Troy –

‘Victory! After ten years, Victory!’

The one word that Clytemnestra prays for.

Queen Clytemnestra – who wears

A man’s heart in a woman’s body,

A man’s dreadful will in the scabbard of her body

Like a polished blade. A hidden blade.”

As well as declarations to the gods, other tales are told by Clytemnestra to the chorus, by the Chorus (in the Agamemnon these are the Elders of the city, in the second they are servants in the palace, and in the last they are the Eumenides themselves) often to each other, either as part of celebrations, or rants, or an airing of their fears. All of it is a bit stilted and has a mixed degree of success.

One stand out example of clever telling in Agamemnon there is the trick of having the murders described to the audience before they happen by the seer Cassandra (she of the famous curse: to always speak the truth, and never be believed) after Clytemnestra and her husband has gone into the palace Cassandra goes into a trance and tells them among many other things:

“She is washing her husband

In his own blood.

He reaches from the bath for her hand

As it jerks him into pitch darkness.

Chorus

What is she talking about?

Who can unravel this?

Cassandra

Now the net – the fish-eye terror:

Death is bundling him up, like a mother

Swaddling a child.

The woman who shared his bed

Is driving the bronze through him.”

Additionally everything is foreshadowed in language choice, allusion and in a couple of cases prophesy: take the reference in the watchman’s speech to Clytemnestra’s character (‘A man’s dreadful will in the scabbard of her body’), to Cassandra’s foretelling of  Orestes’ return (‘…the Gods are watching these deaths, / They are sending one to avenge us. / A true son of his father’s justice / Who will punish his mother.) and the Furies’ anger (the quoted section above continues: ‘The Furies crowd into the house / Gorged with the blood of this house, / Ravenous for the blood of this house – / Look at the Furies. Look – Look –’). This foreshadowing ties the trilogy together in a way that really makes it one work.

Also notable is the strength of the themes: men and masculinity vs. women and femininity,  family ties and the idea of the sins of the parent being visited unto the next generations are all there from the level of word choice up to the backstory in which these murders are part of a curse triggered when one brother fed the other brother his children putting them in a pie with their hands and feet at the bottom. One among many gruesome images in the series. However not enough of them to prevent the BBC from adding a moment in The Libation Bearers where Orestes appears wearing the head of Clytemnestra’s lover as a hat.

It is particularly striking (possibly attributable to Hughes’ work in translating it) that the piece feels quite modern and accomplished in a way that, for example, more ancient texts like The Tale of Sinuhe or the Gita do not. The Ancient Greeks are closer to the writers of those pieces in time, but Aeschylus feels much more like one of us.

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