Review: A Farewell to Arms

I had never read this World War I novel by Ernest Hemingway, so that when my wife suggested that I select some books for us to listen to while we were driving down to Sicily, I selected it.  The particular edition I bought is read by John Slattery, an American film and television actor, who is best known, perhaps, for his role as Roger Sterling in the TV drama series Mad Men; his diction is excellent, he reads with the requisite emotional emphasis, and with the distinct accents of characters of various nationalities.

Hemingway, born in 1899, was a reporter for The Kansas City Star for a few months after graduation from high school before leaving for the Italian front in World War I to serve as an ambulance driver, having been rejected by the US Army because of his eyesight.  He was seriously wounded and returned home.  This experience formed the basis of his third novel, A Farewell to Arms.  Similarly, the love story of the protagonist in A Farewell to Arms with the British nurse, Catherine Barkley, is similar to Hemingway’s affair with the American nurse Agnes von Kurowsky, who was seven years his senior and he had planned to marry, but who become engaged to an Italian officer.

Ernest Hemingway

Frederick Henry, an American paramedical officer serving in the Italian Army in World War I, is introduced by an Italian doctor friend to a pretty British nurse, Catherine Barkley, and though Frederick does not want a relationship, he tries to seduce her.  In combat, he is wounded in the knee by a mortar shell and is sent to a hospital in Milan where Catherine has also been sent.  As Frederick’s knee slowly heals from surgery, he and Catherine spend time together and fall in love.  He is kicked out of the hospital for concealing alcohol, sent back to the front line, and by the time he can return to Milan, Catherine is three months’ pregnant.  When he returns to his unit, he finds that morale has declined precipitously, and not long after, the Austro-Hungarians break through the Italian lines at the Battle of Caporetto.  During the ensuing chaos, it becomes necessary to abandon the ambulances and Frederick kills an insubordinate sergeant.  He finds his way back to the main retreating column, and on crossing a bridge, he discovers that officers not accompanied by their men are suspected of cowardice and ‘treachery’, supposedly leading to the Italian defeat.  Solitary officers are being interrogated and summarily shot.  Frederick dives into the river and is carried downstream to a point where he can board a freight train which carries him to Milan.  At that point, he renounces his military service.  Catherine, however, has been relocated to Stresa, where he finds her, and he is aware that as a deserter, he is subject to execution.  Learning that he is about to be arrested, he and Catherine row a small boat some thirty-five miles up Lago Maggiore to Switzerland, where they are permitted to remain.  Catherine experiences a very difficult birth which results in a Cesarean delivery of a still-born boy, and she has a fatal hemorrhage.  Frederick returns to the hotel alone.

A Farewell to Arms is remarkable in its realistic, unadorned depiction of the absolute futility of war, and of the terrible price it can inflict on participants and bystanders, alike.  Without any actual combat scenes, one still has the sense of ultimately futile involvement.  Hemingway has a remarkable facility with dialogue that defines his characters.  Emotional impact is not explicit; rather, it is inherent in the careful scene setting, and the dialogue.  Exterior settings often leave one with not only a mental picture, but with the feeling such a place would evoke.  Indoor settings are brought to life with just a few words: a ladder-back chair here, a rickety table there.  Hemingway’s recollections of specific places like the Galleria in Milan are remarkably clear after over a decade time lapse.

The only fault I could find with this novel is that there were times that I felt that the pace needed to pick up a bit, particularly with Frederick and Catherine were together, and there was little really new in their interactions.  Of course, the ending is very sad, but the reader knows that the end will be tragic.

Review: The Immortalists

This novel attracted my attention because it has good reviews.  It also has about five pages of glowing blurbs; how can I go wrong?

The Immortalists was written by Chloe Benjamin, who also wrote The Anatomy of Dreams, which received the Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award.  She is a gradate of Vassar College (which was a happy hunting ground for dates when I was at university) and she received her MFA in fiction from the University of Wisconsin.

Chloe Benjamin

The Immortalists is set in 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side.  Four Gold children, aged between seven and thirteen, are looking for a travelling psychic who can tell them the date of their individual deaths.  The first to die, on the forecast date, is Simon, the youngest, in his early twenties, of AIDS in San Francisco.  Klara, two years older than Simon, and a magician, who not only wants to entertain her audience with her magic and her death-defying feats, but wants the audience to believe in magic, dies on schedule of an apparent suicide in Las Vegas.  Klara’s older brother, Daniel, a doctor, becomes involved with a policeman who is investigating the psychic in connection with Simon’s and Klara’s deaths.  He is shot by the policeman as he tries to kill the psychic, whom he has tracked down; he, too, dies at the appointed time.  This leaves only Varya, who is expected to die at age eighty-eight.  Varya is involved in experimental work with primates to prove that lifespan can be increased by severely limiting the intake of particular foods, but at the cost of a comfortable life.  Varya leaves the experiment and the novel ends with Varya, at least thirty years before her appointed death, accompanied by her mother, Gertie, and Klara’s daughter, Ruby, while Ruby puts on a memorable magic show.

Ms Benjamin does a good job in persuading the reader to suspend disbelief regarding the reality of the psychic: we are not surprised when the first three siblings die, nor are we surprised that the police would be investigating.  What I particularly liked about this novel are the emotional connections between the siblings: love, regret and sorrow.  The character of Simon is extremely well drawn: his sense of urgency to experience his homosexuality at the expense of self preservation is clear.  Klara is also a unique character for her fascination with and commitment to magic.

For me, Daniel and Varga are not as clearly defined.  For example, what drives Daniel to confront the old woman mystic with a gun, and what drives Varga to be so preoccupied with her stringent diet when she has little to show for it except longevity.  I am also not clear as to why and how Klara chose suicide, or the character and motivation of Eddie, the policeman.  There is a valid attempt to suffuse the novel with an air of mystery and magic: a very difficult task, which I think is only partially successful.

This is a unique story with potentially very interesting, diverse characters; it has mystery and emotional content; it has great promise.  I’m afraid the editor let the author down slightly.

Famous Writing Quotes

The Reedsy blog has 170 quotations on writing from famous writers.  Here are some of my favourites:

  •  “You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page. Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write.” — Annie Proulx
  • “The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.” — Samuel Johnson
  • “Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.” — Stephen King
  • “Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.” — Natalie Goldberg
  • “Sometimes the ideas just come to me. Other times I have to sweat and almost bleed to make ideas come. It’s a mysterious process, but I hope I never find out exactly how it works. I like a mystery, as you may have noticed.” — J.K. Rowling
  •  “Your writing voice is the deepest possible reflection of who you are. The job of your voice is not to seduce or flatter or make well-shaped sentences. In your voice, your readers should be able to hear the contents of your mind, your heart, your soul.” — Meg Rosoff
  • “There are some books that refuse to be written. They stand their ground year after year and will not be persuaded. It isn’t because the book is not there and worth being written — it is only because the right form of the story does not present itself. There is only one right form for a story and, if you fail to find that form, the story will not tell itself.” — Mark Twain
  • “First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him.” — Ray Bradbury
  • “Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.” — William Faulkner
  •  “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.” — John Steinbeck
  • “I don’t wait for moods. You accomplish nothing if you do that. Your mind must know it has got to get down to work.” — Pearl S. Buck
  • “I would advise any beginning writer to write the first drafts as if no one else will ever read them — without a thought about publication — and only in the last draft to consider how the work will look from the outside.” — Anne Tyler
  • “You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.” ― Octavia E. Butler
  •  “It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.” — Virginia Woolf
  • “When your story is ready for a rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.” — Stephen King
  • “People say, ‘What advice do you have for people who want to be writers?’ I say, they don’t really need advice, they know they want to be writers, and they’re gonna do it. Those people who know that they really want to do this and are cut out for it, they know it.” — R.L. Stine
  • “Each writer is born with a repertory company in his head. Shakespeare has perhaps 20 players. I have 10 or so, and that’s a lot. As you get older, you become more skillful at casting them.” — Gore Vidal

Review: Gilead

I bought a copy of Gilead because it won the Pulitzer Prize of Fiction, and it appeared on a list of best twenty-first century novels.  It is written by Marilynne Robinson, who was born in 1943 and grew up in Sandoint, Idaho.  She graduated from Pembroke College magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, receiving her doctorate in English from University of Washington.  Ms Robinson began teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1991, retiring in 2016.  Apart from Gilead, she has written three highly acclaimed novels and numerous essays and works of non-fiction.  Her novels are noted for their thematic depiction of both rural life and faith.

Marilynne Robinson

The novel begins in 1956 in Gilead, an unincorporated community in Adair County, Iowa, about 100 km southwest of Des Moines.  The Reverend John Ames, toward the end of his life, is beginning a letter to his young son which constitutes the book.  Ames is at least a third generation Congregational minister, and his father and grandfather were ordained ministers in Iowa and Kansas..  His first wife and daughter died, and he married a younger woman who visited his church about ten years ago.  The story includes anecdotes about his father, his childhood, his brother, Edward – a very bright atheist, and the search for the grave of his grandfather.  A particular focus is on the Broughton family; the father is a Presbyterian minister, also in his seventies; the son, Jack, is an enigmatic figure, who has a special relationship with Ames, dating back to his childhood, but Ames and Jack have difficulty confronting each other about Jacks sins and his agnosticism.  The language is gentle and pious; the setting is, as Edward says, ‘a backwater’.  Any significant actions have largely taken place somewhere else or in the past.  Nonetheless, this is a novel that captures the reader’s attention through the intellectual honest and simplicity of the Reverend Ames.

This isn’t a book about religion or faith per se, though there are references to one or the other on nearly every page.  Rather, it is a novel about the challenges of living a caring, devout, unadorned life, while the external world goes through its thoughtless, irresponsible gyrations.  The title of the novel raises the question of Jeremiah: “Is there no balm in Gilead?”  The answer has been the subject of religious debate for centuries.  There was a balm made from a tree in the region of Gilead (in Jordan), but how effective was it?  Gilead was a place famous for its iniquitous people.  There is also a traditional spiritual praising the balm of Gilead in spiritual terms.  Perhaps Ms Robinson’s intention was to stimulate her readers to consider the merits of Reverend Ames’ lifestyle.

The only reservation I had about this book is whether there should have been more engagement with members of the congregation to add dimensions to the question about the balm of Gilead, and less of the thoughts and musings of Reverend Ames, who, after all, is a clearly defined character from early in the novel.

How Long Is My Chapter?

There is an article in Writing Craft, a section of The Florida Writer’s blog, written by Louise Titchener on 8 December 2018 that caught my eye, because I’ve been wondering about the ‘correct length’ for a chapter: my current project has chapters of 6-7 pages, while, in the past, my chapters are more commonly 15-20 pages.

Louise Titchener’s biography in Amazon says that she is the author of over 40 published novels in a variety of genres including romance, science fiction fantasy, and mystery. She has also published articles in leading magazines and written book reviews for The Washington Post.

Louise Titchener

Her article says: “Chapters of twenty to thirty pages used to be the adult fiction norm. When I started attempting to write novels, I crafted long chapters—and proud of it.

“Guess what. Nowadays I’m cutting those long chapters by half, thirds, and sometimes even by quarters.

What changed? I think technology transformed reading habits. When I was learning to write, transitions were a big deal. Writers were advised never to change a scene, setting, or time period without preparing the reader with a well-developed transition. Figuratively speaking, the writer had to take his reader’s hand and lead him down the narrative path so he/she didn’t get lost.

“Today—not so much. When I first became aware of this shift I was cleaning up in the kitchen while listening to a television show in the other room. Because I wasn’t actually watching the show, it dawned on me that the scenes were extremely short and the cuts between scenes lacked transition. Viewers were making the narrative jumps without help. Was this because transitions were no longer required? Are consumers of media so accustomed to sudden swings in narrative point of view that they no longer need guideposts to follow?

“I think technology has trained people to accept quick bursts of action and move right on to new themes and points of view with very little preparation. Nowadays viewers and readers are sophisticated consumers who can navigate non-linear plots, lightning fast scene changes and shifts in time and space with ease. Or, at least, that’s what they’re asked to do in our culture’s mass media environment, and it seems to be working.

“On the other hand, I think most consumers these days have very little patience for long drawn out scene and character development. They have become acclimated to mass media offerings that move at a pace an older generation might have found perplexing.

“So what is the takeaway for writers? The advantage of a long chapter is the slow and steady development of character and scene. The reader feels the writer isn’t skimming the surface of a story, but digging deep, offering insights that only come with a leisurely and thoughtful pace.

“The advantage of a short chapter is the reader knows he can move from one chapter to the next without feeling trapped by a lengthy narrative. In other words, keeping your chapters short make it easier to write a page turner.

“What’s the caveat? Short chapters can make a story feel chopped up. What’s more, they all need to end on a hook that makes the reader want to stay engaged with the story. If your chapters are only three-five pages long, that’s a lot of hooks. On the other hand, maybe writing in short cuts is a good exercise in keeping a story moving with action, dialogue, and heart-racing events.

“If you’re not into heart-racing, the uninterrupted, more detailed narrative might be more satisfying. Decisions, decisions. Well, there’s always the happy medium—short enough to keep things moving, but long enough to make it seem worthwhile.”

Her point about serious serials on television is a good one.  The BBC and Netfix are both offering items like the current MotherFatherSon, which seem chopped up into small pieces of only one or two minutes and in each of which a new issue, scene and character might be introduced.  One has to watch with patience, dropping each piece of the puzzle into place in one’s mind.

I don’t have that kind of situation with the novel I am finishing now.  Rather, it is a ‘diary’ of the major events toward the end of a man’s life.  I have to keep the chapters relatively brief.  As it is at the moment, it is 24 chapters – one chapter per year – for a total of 168 pages, which will yield a 280 page, 95,000 word book.  Longer chapters would make a longer book – probably unnecessarily long.

Beliefs About Writing

Mary Ann de Stefano, editor of The Florida Writer Magazine, and an independent editor with >30 years experience, has an article in the February issue of the magazine in which she expresses her beliefs about writing.  She says she started making a list of beliefs ten years ago, and would revisit her list every year to make revisions to it, trying to be bluntly honest with herself and listing even her most self-defeating ones.  Below is this year’s list.

Mary Ann de Stefano

  1. Showing up to do the work – fully present and open to possibility – is the hardest part of writing.
  2. The best writing sessions begin with and are fuelled by curiosity.
  3. Writing is about layering on, then taking away, layering on, then taking away.  (I’m not sure what she means by this.  If she means ‘writing, revising, writing and revising, I agree.)
  4. No one gets it right the first time. (Amen.)
  5. Don’t get stuck in an idea when another one is trying to happen.  (I would say ‘when one idea isn’t quite working, look for another one’.)
  6. You will always be learning to write.
  7. Writing is messy.  Make a mess and you can always clean it up later.  (I’m not that fond of being messy.)
  8. Although you may regularly prove your inner critic wrong, that doesn’t make the critic go away.  Turn down the volume!  (Fair point.)
  9. Creation is painful.  Revision is a blast.  For some writers, it’s the reverse.
  10. Laughing out loud while the writing is good, even if it’s not during the funny parts.  (There’s something similar about crying during the good sad parts.)
  11. You are a better writer than you used to be, but you’ll always be raising the bar. (!)
  12. Your best writing happens when you’re not thinking about it.
  13. It’s not a bad thing to remain cautious about sharing work in an early draft.  The writing is fragile then and so are you.
  14. Writers need keen readers they can trust to tell them the truth about their work.  (Yes, but they’re hard to find.)
  15. There’s always a nugget of truth in every criticism.
  16. Time slows down painfully while a writer waits for someone to read and comment on their work.
  17. Be kind to other writers and yourself.
  18. No one else can write the story you can write.
  19. Writing well isn’t easy, or everyone would do it.
  20. The writing itself is the best teacher.  (I think writing is like tennis or golf: practice by yourself is necessary and most effective at first, but later you need discover what is possible by watching others.)
  21. Writing is not a social activity, but writer-friends who get it and get you are necessary.
  22. All you can ever do is write it to the best of your ability, and let it go.   Your next work will be better.

We Need to Talk About Children’s Books in a Grown Up Way

There was an article in the Evening Standard on 28 January with the above title written by Katie Law, an ES journalist, covering the views of Lauren Child, the best-selling author-illustrator and current Children’s Laureate, on the problems faced by children’s books.

Lauren Child

Law says: “Lauren Child thinks children’s book publishing still gets a bad deal. It’s one of the reasons she is so happy to be a judge for this year’s Oscar’s Book Prize ‘There’s still a lot of snootiness about children’s books. Just look at the teeny-weeny percentage that get reviewed compared to adults. It’s as if there’s a kind of hierarchy.’

“Child is best known for her books featuring Clarice Bean, Charlie and Lola (who became a TV series), Ruby Redfort and Hubert Horatio, which together have sold more than five million copies worldwide. In the two decades since we first met quirky, snub-nosed Clarice Bean and her chaotic, trendy family, her legions of original fans have become adults. ‘The most touching experience in my whole career is talking to grown-ups who tell me what the book meant to them when they were growing up,’ says Child, 53. ‘It’s why I’m so passionate about the idea that children’s book writing and illustrating should get more recognition, and why prizes like Oscar’s Book Prize are so important, because there is so little coverage. We know that a child’s life can be changed by what they read, so why don’t we spend more time thinking about what that material is?’

“Pippi Longstocking, Mary Poppins and The Secret Garden — all of which she has illustrated — were the books that had the most profound effect on Child when she was growing up. ‘The Secret Garden was a gamechanger because it was about someone who was so hard to like. She was plain, had a horrible expression on her face, was bossy and ungrateful. As a child I felt like her, I felt all of those things. I felt it was me. So for children who might think bad things about themselves, these stories can help let them off the hook. It’s all a drip-drip effect, which is why it’s important we talk about children’s books in a grown-up way, in terms of what they’re about, rather than just saying ‘Isn’t it lovely?’

Clarice Bean

“Ms Child says: ‘We’re great at giving prizes for unusual adults’ books but not so good at praising people who have different ideas about children’s books; things need to be a bit more extraordinary.’ Her own trajectory is a great example: Clarice Bean only took off when she stopped trying to please her publishers. ‘I was young and kept trying to do what they wanted and getting it wrong, so every time I rewrote or redrew something, it would get more dead. It had none of me in it, so quite rightly they rejected it. I actually started writing Clarice Bean as a film and forgot about all the things you need to make a book, and that’s when the publishers suddenly became interested. It’s about the need to reject everything you think they want and find your own voice.’

“The National Literacy Trust finds that one in 11 children and young people in the UK don’t own a book (a figure that rises to one in eight children on free school meals), and that book ownership is one of the highest predictors of reading attainment and mental well-being.

“Child grew up in Wiltshire in a happy family not unlike Clarice Bean’s. Today she lives in north London with her partner, criminal barrister Adrian Darbishire, and their daughter Tuesday, now nearly nine, whom she adopted from Mongolia at the age of two-and-a-half after visiting the country as part of a Unesco project.  ‘Having Tuesday doesn’t change the way I write or illustrate but it does make me see more than ever how important illustration is. We had no common language when she arrived. But we did have drawing, and she was a natural right from the start, which really helped us communicate. It’s important for children that their drawings are looked at and that it has a wide role in education because it’s about learning to observe and understand, just like creative writing, and having these skills can make you much more empathetic.'”

I particularly agree with what Ms Child says about book publishers: they don’t know what they want, but when they find something eclectic that is well-written and full of the author’s passion, they go for it.

 

An Unwelcome Prize?

Last week’s Saturday Telegraph  had and article by Tristram Fane Saunders with the title, ‘Does Anybody Want To Be the Poet Laureate?’

In my early years at university, I used to write reams of ‘classic’, romantic poetry in iambic pentameter, and I would have been enchanted with the thought of being Poet Laureate of anywhere – even Atlantic City – if it had been offered to me.  But, had I read Mr Saunders’ article at the time, I might have had second thoughts.   As far as I can tell, Mr Saunders is a poet, a comic, writer,  translator, commentator for the Telegraph, and all around culture vulture.

Tristram Fane Saunders

He says, “Who would want to be poet laureate? John Skelton, Henry VIII’s tutor and self-proclaimed “Lauryate”, had to put up with rivals “rudely revilyng me in the kynges noble hall”, and royal poets have faced mud-slinging ever since – especially from other poets.

“Dryden, the first modern laureate, called his successor, Shadwell, “a foul mass of corrupted matter”. George III’s poet Pye was guilty of churning out verse “doggedly and dully” according to Southey, who found he suffered from the same problem on inheriting the post.

“In 1999, the appointment of Andrew Motion was denounced as “a shameful failure of integrity and imagination” by Carol Ann Duffy. She had nothing against Motion, but felt the job should have gone to a woman. (Of course, a decade later, for the first time in history, it did.)

“As Duffy’s 10-year tenure comes to an end this year, it’s time for the country to choose its new bardic mascot. But who makes that choice? Until now it has been shrouded in obfuscation, but this time the Government has laid the whole process bare. A “steering group” of 15 named experts has been assembled from the heads of various literary festivals, libraries and poetry organisations around the UK. The group has drawn up a shortlist of four or five poets, culled from a longer list after a bit of back-and-forth with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

“It is now up to the DCMS to make the final selection – or selections, if the first choice turns the post down, as Philip Larkin did in 1984. As a formality, the decision is passed on to the Prime Minister, who then submits it to the Queen for approval. In practice, however, the buck stops with the head of the DCMS, Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright.

“I don’t envy the steering group’s job. After all, how can you choose a laureate, when it’s still not altogether clear what a laureate is?

“In theory, being laureate entails no more work than being an OBE. The title is defined online by the royal household as “an honour awarded by HM to a poet whose work is of national significance”. Wordsworth only took the role after being assured by the Prime Minister that “you shall have nothing required of you”. The public may expect topical poems on state occasions, but the Queen doesn’t. Quit writing and move to Majorca, and you’ll still be eligible for your annual salary.

“That salary, as it happens, is £6,000, paid for by DCMS, and a “butt of sack” (cask of sherry) gifted by a vineyard in Spain. The booze was originally a gift received by Ben Jonson, unofficial laureate to James I and Charles I, then revived as part of Dryden’s honorarium. Duffy, Motion and Hughes all received their butt – measured into 720 bottles – from the same producers in Jerez.

“For the past 10 years Duffy has not been sitting on her butt, but giving it away at launches and selling it for charitable causes.

“The lack of hubbub around this year’s appointment is a far cry from the heady days of 1999, when the race was beset by one scandal after another. Rumours that Tony Blair wanted to “modernise” the position and reinvent it as a “People’s Laureate” (though denied by Downing Street) prompted an aghast letter from Hughes’s widow, leaked to the Telegraph, which accused Blair of jeopardising “the sanctity” of the post.

“Then a shortlist of five names was leaked, of which two had already ruled themselves out in verse: Seamus Heaney (“My passport’s green./ No glass of ours was ever raised/ To toast The Queen”) and Tony Harrison, who published a long poem attacking Blair, the monarchy and “toadies like Di-deifying Motion”.

“Derek Walcott, also on the list, was seen as a long shot by reporters at the time, due to doubts over whether he would be willing to move to the UK, and the lingering bad publicity of a 1996 sexual harassment allegation (though the claim was dropped). Of the five, that left only Motion and Duffy. Then came another leak: a Government “source” told the press Blair had quashed Duffy’s chances. The PM, it was claimed, was reportedly “worried about having a homosexual as poet laureate because of how it might play in Middle England”.

(In) “Bloomsbury, one bookseller is running an under-the-table sweepstake. I’m told three names have attracted significant bets from the literati there: Dalit Nagra, Alice Oswald and Lemn Sissay.  I’d add two more to that list: Jackie Kay, already Scotland’s laureate, and Simon Armitage, who’s been tipped as a laureate-in-waiting for at least 20 years.

“As for the laureateship, whoever gets it must have a thick skin. Take a leaf from Betjeman’s book. “Your appointment has been stigmatised as arbitrary and irrelevant,” Martin Amis once told the then poet laureate in a radio interview. “Do you, Sir John, feel yourself to be arbitrary and irrelevant?” Betjeman didn’t hesitate: “Yes, thank God.””

Review: I’d Die for You and Other Lost Stories

I found this book in a the English section of a book store in Capo d’Orlando, Sicily, and since I’d never read his work – of course, I’ve seen The Great Gatsby – I bought it, a collection of F Scott Fitzgerald’s unpublished short stories.  Perhaps the best feature of this book is that it is edited by Anne Margaret Daniel, and who provides a fascinating picture of the writer and his life through her notes and comments.

Anne Margaret Daniel

Her website says this about the editor: “Anne Margaret Daniel teaches at the New School University in New York City and at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson. Her articles and essays on literature and music have appeared for the past twenty years in books, critical editions, magazines, and journals from The New York Times to Hot Press to The Times Literary Supplement. Anne Margaret has degrees in American history and English literature from Harvard (A.B.), Georgetown (M.A.), and Princeton (Ph.D). She also has a J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law. As a graduate student at Princeton in 1996, she gave the keynote lecture at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Centenary Conference held at his alma mater, and has published extensively on his writing, and on American Modernism, since.

There are eighteen short stories in this book, all previously unpublished.  Fitzgerald finished four novels: This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and Damned, the Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night,  and, posthumously The Last Tycoon.  But he was a prolific short story-writer, with four collections of stories and 164 short stories published in magazines; he also worked as a screen-writer in Hollywood.  While his writing was popular during his lifetime, and he did achieve periods of financial success, he did not achieve critical acclaim until after his death in 1944.  (He was born in 1896.)  Much of his  writing was representative of the ‘Lost Generation’ of the 1920’s: jazz, flappers and speak-easys.  His short stories often appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, a magazine to which my parents subscribed.  He was an alcoholic from the time he graduated from Princeton; his heavy drinking lead to health problems in the 30’s and his death in ’44.

F Scott Fitzgerald

Most of the stories in this collection date from the 30’s, during the Depression, when Fitzgerald was trying to move his genre away from love stories about pretty, rich girls, parties and high living to the grittier aspects of real life.  During this period, his agent and publishing editors frequently demanded changes to soften the content, or rejected it entirely.  Also, during the period, he had spells of working in Hollywood, which, while financially attractive, was frustrating in that he viewed the literary output requirements as very ordinary and it took time away from his chosen pursuits.

His writing is imaginative and direct, without elaboration, and often involves a young, pretty, somewhat naive and love-struck girl and one or more older men with obvious character defects.  There is no sex, but it is sometimes implied.  The plot doesn’t end as one might expect, but rarely badly.

The first story in the book is The I.O.U. written in 1920 for Harper’s Bazaar which didn’t publish, nor did The Saturday Evening Post.  Fitzgerald was working on his second novel The Beautiful and Damned at the time, and the story was ‘lost in the shuffle’.  Yale’s Beinecke Library purchased the manuscript in 2012 for $194,500 (14 printed pages).  The story is a light-hearted satire of the publishing industry, featuring a stressed-out publisher, a mad-as-a-hatter psychic doctor/author, a war hero and a pretty girl.  The improbable antics are certainly entertaining, and the story ends with the public unmasking of the fraudulent author via an IOU for $3.80.

Gracie at Sea is a screen play scenario written for George Burns and Gracie Allen, who were a famous cinema comic duo at the time (1934).  It is based on the proposition that wealthy father will not allow his pretty, younger daughter to marry until her older, very awkward sister is married.  Gracie is the awkward sister and George Burns in the incompetent PR man hired to make Gracie look marriageable.  Everything goes wrong as one slap-stick scene follows another.  This may have worked in the hands of an able director, but as a screen play scenario written as a serious short story it falls completely flat, and Paramount didn’t buy it.

Travel Together written a year or two after Gracie at Sea concerns a Hollywood writer who is living the life of a hobo in order to gain experience for a screen play he is writing.  He meets a pretty, young hobo girl, with whom he travels to the west coast.  The girl is looking for a woman to whom her rich, senile father gave a large diamond just before he died; she views the diamond as her rightful inheritance.  It is a lovely, imaginative story.

There are plenty of other good stories in this collection; some of them ahead of their time in dealing with taboos like un-married pregnancy, illicit funding of college sports, suicide and criminal activities.  Fitzgerald wanted to tell it like it is, not like his audience might have wanted it to be.  This made his efforts to change genres more difficult, and his finances more strained, while his ventures into Hollywood were frustrating, and his own health and that of his wife were deteriorating.

The Ethics of Characters

There is an article in the February issue of The Florida Writer, by Chrissy Jackson that caught my eye.  Ms Jackson is a member of the Florida Writers Association.  She graduated with high honours from Eckerd College in 20165, earning a behavioural science degree with a focus on non-profit leadership.

Chrissy Jackson

In the article, Ms Jackson urges authors to consider the ethics of each character.  She says: “Each character must be different from the other in a striking way. Not only in physical characteristics, but also in their moral compass which determines how they interact with others, decisions they make, and actions they take.

“Certainly, when thinking about the protagonist, ethics come into play as you craft the character. But even the antagonist takes some thinking when there are ethical choices to be made. It is important to allow enough room on both sides for growth and situational changes to impact each of them.  Just as in real life where no one is all good or all bad, so it is with your characters. No one is ethical all the time nor consistently unethical. For example, if the antagonist is a sociopath, who is manipulative and never considers the rights of others, one who sees their self-serving
behaviours as permissible, there might still be an ethical core way down deep in their personality that comes out if the situation is just right. A trigger, perhaps, that brings up a long-ago memory of something positive.

“Readers look for a twist in character development, the something that changes as the story builds and the character arc emerges, but as an author, you need to build it realistically so that ethical choices seem appropriate for each personality you develop, yet there is that little something that is unexpected. Perhaps your antagonist is one who tortures people instead of just murdering them outright. Maybe it started in their youth with puppies, rabbits and other small animals. Yet maybe it never extended to kittens because in the horrible life that passed for the youth of your antagonist, there was a lost, abandoned kitten that hid under the house and rather than seeing it as easy prey, it represented for your character something that cared about them in a way no one else ever did. That might drive his ethical choices when confronted with a person intended to be his next victim, but who is found playing with a kitten, much like he did when he escaped the adults and crawled under his house. Ethical memories may interfere with the killer’s plans, causing him to rethink his actions for a minute, and that may be just long enough for the planned victim to move out of the situation.

“Ethics are a moral sense of right and wrong, confusing overall, because rightness or wrongness can be seen so clearly and so differently by different people. While a drug-addicted mother may put her children in harm’s way through choices she makes while under the influence of heroin—and actually lose custody of them—the ethics of her situation are not lost on her when she is not high. As an author creating a rounded character, you know there is more her story than her physical cravings. You need to also weave in the love she has for her newborn, and the unconditional love that is returned.  Even small children are faced with ethical dilemmas.  Should Susie take Mary’s cookie off the lunch tray when no one is looking?  Who will know she did it?  And do not forget the judgement of the public against the protagonist. If he/she does something that turns out to be the “right” choice, the ethical decision, but does it for the wrong reason initially, is it still right? Who knows the real reason underlying the call to action? Who will tell someone else? How will it be portrayed? Does it change the public opinion about the protagonist?”

I certainly agree with Ms Jackson’s central points: that characters develop and change over the course of a story (the character arc); and that it is important to plan for and support those changes as the writing progresses.