Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Resolving to read

Image courtesy of Ian Kahn at

Like most people, every year at this time I make a bunch of New Year’s resolutions. I don’t think of them as hard and fast commitments to myself but more like rules to live by, reminders that I can do better. There are some old perennials that re-occur every year - lose 10lbs, stop screaming at other drivers in traffic, and cope better with stress. But to leaven the Calvinist self-improvement tone (and just because it’s fun), I always include a New Year’s resolution about what I want to read in the coming year. 

Last year I resolved to fill two large gaps in my reading experience and knock out James Joyce’s Ulysses and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Ahem. What was I thinking? Not much leavening there, I can tell you. I ploughed my way through The Magic Mountain, marveling all the while at how Mann managed to take a simple story of a hypochondriac  who chooses to live like an invalid at a Swiss sanatorium and make it last for over 700 pages. Don’t get me wrong – I love long books, but not when the story in question could be told in less than half the time. Mann himself originally intended the book to be a novella – I rest my case. There are some tour-de-force passages in the book and even some that are downright funny, but I was soon bogged down again in the author’s ruminations on the mysterious concept of time or in long, abstruse debates between the characters on religion, politics, and philosophy. I read it to the end but wouldn’t mind having all that time back to spend more wisely. 

As for Ulysses, I’ll admit I didn’t even crack it open until a couple of weeks ago, on the principle that starting it in 2010 was still consonant with my resolution. I sailed through the first few pages, enjoying the banter between the three young men squatting in the Martello Tower outside Dublin. But then I hit Stephen Dedalus’s first internal stream of consciousness monologue. Now I consider myself a pretty well-educated, well-read kind of a gal, but I was in totally uncharted waters here. And not necessarily in a good way. I remembered Virginia Woolf’s waspish comment that Ulysses put her in mind of a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples. She also called the book "a memorable catastrophe." Talk about a two-faced compliment. But I will persevere a bit longer and may even switch to listening to it on audio which friends tell me makes it a little easier to follow.  

All of which is to say that I’m not going to be so hard on myself in 2011. Here’s my list so far - the only two Dickens novels I’ve never read – Barnaby Rudge and (believe it or not) A Tale of Two Cities – Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet about the last days of the British Empire in India, and Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy. As I said, I do like long books and that hasn’t changed despite my experiences of 2010.

So is anybody else making any reading resolutions this year? 

Monday, December 27, 2010

In the Bleak Midwinter

Listening to the Arctic wind wuthering around our house last night, the words that came to my mind were the first words of the poem by Christina Rossetti that became a lovely but mournful Christmas carol after her death.
Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) was the younger sister of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti for whose early pictures she often modeled. Like many of her Victorian sister poets (Elizabeth Browning and Emily Dickinson to name but two), she was in poor health for much of her life and rarely went out or received visitors. The fainting couch seems to have been a source of inspiration (or at least of peace and quiet) for these women who between them produced some of the most memorable and innovative poetry of the 19th century.
Rossetti’s poem was first set to music in 1906 by Gustav Holst in a version known as “Cranham.” This was the version I sang with my Scottish schoolmates in our annual carol concerts in the 1960s, with the word “iron” in the first verse being pronounced with two distinct Scottish syllables – “eye-ron.”
As an adult living in London, I sang for a while in a choir that participated in several annual Christmas concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. That’s when I became enamored of the other version of the carol – the hauntingly lovely arrangement written by the composer Harold Darke in 1909. More complex than the Cranham, it is interesting because the melody varies from verse to verse.  
I love both versions equally. Both evoke the deep unavailing chill of winter when it seems that the earth will never thaw and the sun will never be seen again. And yet every year the ground does thaw and the sun emerges from the grey and the earth is resurrected.  Can’t come too soon for me.

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
Enough for him, whom cherubim Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk, And a mangerful of hay:
Enough for him, whom angels, Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel Which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But his mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshiped the beloved with a kiss.

What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him:  give my heart.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Here Comes My Family

Everyone has a picture of the perfect Christmas in their head. We may fail to reach it in practice, but we continue to hold onto a vision of an emotional apotheosis in which there is abundance and benevolence and all discord falls away. I was lucky enough to experience many wonderful Christmases as a child, thanks – I now realize – to a huge amount of effort by my parents, my mother in particular. But my own mental picture of a perfect Christmas is more a creation of the books I’ve read than of any actual gathering in my own life.
The quintessential festive gathering in fiction is the Fezziwigs’ Christmas party in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: “There were more dances, and there were forfeits, and more dances, and there was cake, and there was negus, and there was a great piece of Cold Roast, and there was a great piece of Cold Boiled, and there were mince-pies and plenty of beer.”
And every woman who ever read in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women found herself crying over the scene when (spoiler alert!) Mr. March comes home from the war to a traditional Christmas dinner with his family. “The fat turkey was a sight to behold when Hannah sent him up, stuffed, browned, and decorated. So was the plump pudding, which quite melted in one’s mouth; likewise the jellies, in which Amy reveled like a fly in a honey pot.”
Another of my great favorites is the memoir A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas: “Mistletoe hung from the gas brackets in all the front parlours; there was sherry and walnuts and bottled beer and crackers by the dessertspoons; and cats in their furabouts watched the fires; and the high-heaped fire spat, all ready for the chestnuts and the mulling pokers… Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang Cherry Ripe, and another uncle sang Drake’s Drum. It was very warm in the little house.”
However, my absolute favorite Christmas doesn’t come from a book but from a glorious film – the great opus Fanny and Alexander by Ingmar Bergman. In this clip, Grandmother Ekdahl stands in her long fur coat on the balcony of her sumptuous apartment, which is lit by hundreds of white candles. From below in the snowy street come the sounds of laughter and sleigh bells that tell her that children and grandchildren are on their way to join her for their annual Christmas feast. She smiles and says, more to herself than to her companion, what we all hope to be able to say on Christmas Day – “Here comes my family.”

Thursday, December 16, 2010

World Enough, And Time

All creative people get frustrated when life takes over and leaves them no time to express themselves. For me that feeling is never more acute than at this time of year. I recognize that the Christmas season is actually an outlet for many people’s creativity. By decorating their houses, sending beautiful home-made greeting cards, wrapping gifts, baking, and cooking, they are giving rein to their artistic impulses as well as giving pleasure to others.
 I am not one of those people. The honest truth is every year at this time I feel like a corked-up bottle ready to explode. It’s hard enough during the rest of the year to find time to write, but in December with all the social and organizational demands of the holidays – all delightful in themselves but so time-consuming – it’s almost impossible. I get panicky, thinking that a whole month is going by and I’m not making any progress with my book. It doesn’t help that I turn a year older in early December every year so “at my back I always hear, Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” (Of course Andrew Marvell was trying to persuade his coy mistress to get frisky before they both grew too old to care. I guess we all feel time’s pressure in different ways.)
I know that what I need to do is take a deep breath and just live for a few short weeks. I need to allow myself to enjoy the taste of Christmas cookies, the smell of pine sap and wood fires, the sight of the beautifully decorated trees in my neighbors’ windows, and the sound of carols sung by high boys’ voices in ancient British cathedrals. And of course I need to spend time with friends and family, time that is balm to my spirit in a different but equally essential way to the time I spend at my desk. My book will still be there on January 1.

Monday, December 13, 2010

L’Après Midi d’un Faune

This afternoon’s discussion of ballet on National Public Radio reminded me of a scene in Book 1 of Albion’s Millennium when Celia’s married cousin Emily takes her to see the Ballets Russes at the Royal Opera House in 1912.

“The curtain rose on a set of glorious color, a woodland glade of green and ochre and terracotta. A frieze hung from the proscenium and another lay along the base of the stage, both depicting nymphs in poses like those on Greek vases, awkward, two-dimensional, unreal. And then suddenly there were live nymphs on stage striking the same wooden, angular positions. In empire-waist dresses of almost transparent muslin and bare feet, they ran across the stage, their arms held above their heads in a stylized pose. All their heads turned to the right, then back again to the left. The music was luscious, but underneath the melody there throbbed an uneasy heartbeat from the violins. Then the girls gathered into a sudden tangle of arms and limbs, a tableau of nymphs, and astonishingly, a man came leaping out of the wings and hung in space for what seemed an impossible length of time before coming down upon one muscular leg. The audience burst into spontaneous applause. Celia leaned forward in her seat and gripped the edge of the box.
Nijinsky wore a dappled skin-tight costume with a fig leaf at the V of his legs. A short, erect tail was affixed to his rear. He pivoted on one leg and struck a pose, his hands flat, the thumbs held stiffly away from the palms. He went up on his toes then crouched down low. He writhed, he twirled and then flung himself into a series of pliées. Again, the audience erupted with applause.

Celia looked through her opera glasses. Nijinsky’s costume showed every curve and ripple of his athletic body, the bulge of the calf, the swell of the shoulder, the sinewy neck. And yet there was something undeniably feminine about what he did with his body as he gamboled with the nymphs around their bathing pool. The cap that lay close against his head with its strange little tip, the gracefulness of his arms, somehow made him seem more like one of the nymphs than a faun who had caught them unawares. Nijinsky chased the nymphs to the swell and pulse of the music, and as they fled offstage, he spun around in a mad lonely dance of disappointment. Celia felt tears come to her eyes. She felt for the little androgynous faun, lovesick and crazed with loneliness and despair. Nijinsky launched into a series of running spins, round and round and round. At the height of his acceleration, he burst into a grand jeté even higher than the one that had catapulted him onto the stage. As he came to earth at the climax of the music, he fell to his knees. The audience gasped and Celia’s hand flew to her mouth, but it was all a part of the dance.

The faun lay close to the ground but in his upraised fist he held a long chiffon scarf.  He rolled over to his back and held the scarf above him stretched between his two hands, then let one end of it fall and trail over his body. His head went back and his eyes closed. Celia longed to look through her opera glasses but didn’t dare. She sat as still as she could, her heart beating against her rib cage. Once more Nijinsky caught the scarf in both hands and sitting up he passed it along the back of his neck and across his face, sniffing it, feeling it against his mouth. Abruptly he rolled once more onto his stomach and fed the long sinuous scarf between his legs and, as the music crescendoed, he raised his buttocks and pressed them over and over against the material, his eyes closed, his head back. The music crested, he arched his spine and flung his head back, his face a rictus of agony. He held that pose - Celia could see the muscles in his arms trembling with the effort - until slowly, slowly he deflated himself, muscle by muscle, till he lay full length and broken on the stage.

Suddenly all was black and silent in the theatre. And then the applause began, a torrent of clapping that masked the hum of excitement and consternation that ran through the hall. Ottoline stood up, splendid in her peacock feathers, and shouted, 'Bravo, Nijinsky!' but Celia could see several men down in the orchestra stalls, hurrying their wives towards the exit. Celia’s heart was pistoning in her chest and her face felt hot. She found her handkerchief and dabbed at the sweat that had broken out on her upper lip. By the time the house lights came up for the first intermission, she felt slightly more composed. 

Emily leaned forward from behind her, laughing. 'What would Aunt Rosalind say if she knew you’d seen that?'”

Friday, December 10, 2010

Knights in White Satin

Isn’t it great when you discover a book that you want to recommend to everyone you meet? That’s what I feel about Wolf Hall, a novel by Hilary Mantel that won the 2009 Mann Booker in the UK. Set in the reign of Henry VIII (he of the six wives and the English Reformation), it is told from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s powerful adviser. In most accounts of the period, Cromwell is depicted as a scheming villain who brought about the execution of Thomas More when More wouldn’t support Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon. (See the movie A Man for all Seasons starring Paul Schofield as More, Robert Shaw as Henry VIII, and Leo McKern as Cromwell.) Mantel’s is a much more sympathetic portrait of Cromwell, a self-made man, born the son of a blacksmith, and shows how he slowly became indispensable to the King and how his allegiance to Henry slowly began to turn him into a over-zealous enforcer of the King’s new role as head of a brand new Anglican church.

I admire how Mantel draws you into the everydayness of the Tudor world, with its smells and sounds. The interactions between her characters are as realistic and matter-of-fact as any we in the 21st century have with each other today. And her use of language is perfect – clean, spare lines of narrative with the occasional bloom of lushness. I find so many modern novels over-written to the extent that I want to take a machete and hack back the excess. Not Mantel. She gives us one unforgettable image – “Rubies cluster on [Henry’s] knuckles like bubbles of blood” – and then gets on with the story.

And not for a second does Mantel let herself be seduced by a fake glamour that many writers attach to the past. Here is her description of the procession bringing Henry’s new queen, Anne Boleyn, to Westminster for her coronation.
“The judges in scarlet follow, the Knights of the Bath in blue-violet of antique cut, then the bishops, Lord Chancellor Audley and his retinue, the great lords in crimson velvet. Sixteen knights carry Anne in a white litter hung with silver bells which ring at each step, at each breath; the queen is in white, her body shimmering in its strange skin, her face held in a conscious solemn smile, her hair loose beneath a circle of gems. After her, ladies on palfreys trapped with white velvet; and ancient dowagers in their chariots, their faces acidulated.”
Note how the prettiness of the word “palfreys” is swiftly followed – like a slap – by the “acidulated” expressions on the faces of the dowagers.

I am in awe.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Muse

Everywhere I go I meet people who say to me, AYou work at home? Oh, I couldn’t do that – I’d never do any work.” But I’m here to tell you - it=s a myth that you need self-discipline to be a freelancer. I have none. Given a choice, I=d rather read the paper, e-mail friends, or watch movies on HBO than knuckle down to an assigned task. But I can=t do those things any more than you can. I may work from home but I still have deadlines to meet.  My bosses, like yours, expect me to deliver whether I=m wearing a power suit or my pjs.  
Having said that, being able to stay in my pjs all day is a definite plus on the pros and cons list for working at home. I can fall out of bed, stumble into the next room, turn on my laptop, and I=m open for business. No rushing against the clock to iron a wrinkled shirt or dig around for your only pair of tights without runs. 
As for the other pros on the list, my particular favourite is the absence of a commute. This adds a good hour and a half to my day. And in flu season, it is very nice not to have to sit on a crowded train in a miasma of cold germs.
Also, you can do your housework during the day. When I take a break from the computer, I=m not schmoozing at the water cooler, I=m scrubbing the bath or doing laundry. That way, I save more of my precious free time to write or just have fun.
Another pro - you can set your own working hours. Maybe this doesn’t apply to someone with a young family, but for me, it is largely true. Never a morning person, I=ve been known to do my best work late at night, and it does tend to impress the clients when they get e-mails from you written at 3am. What dedication, what energy! On the other hand, sometimes friends assume your daytime hours are at their disposal - but then sometimes they can be.
So what are the cons? Well, it can be isolating – though thanks to e-mail, Facebook and a damn good social life, I’ve never found this to be much of a problem. But neighborhood noise has sometimes threatened my sanity – from barking dogs to leaf blowers, car alarms, house alarms, and jackhammers. A particularly stupid woodpecker drilling away relentlessly on my plastic gutter once provoked me into throwing open a window and banging on a saucepan with a wooden spoon to scare it away!
I do miss having a climate-controlled office, a subsidized cafeteria and access to state-of-the-art computer equipment and – holy of holies – to on-the-spot tech support. But when push comes to shove, we office worker bees are all in the same boat these days – each in our burrows like moles, ruining our eyesight peering at LCD screens all day, surrounded by electronic equipment. Speaking for myself alone, I prefer to do my peering in my own messy burrow with NPR on the radio, a steaming cup of Earl Grey on hand, and a warm cat dozing on my pajama-ed lap. Can you blame me?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Paradise Lost

Tomorrow is my birthday. It looks like being a pretty regular day – a dentist appointment, some Christmas shopping, a bit of writing, maybe a glass of wine in the evening. A far cry from my birthday three years ago – my 50th – which I spent with my husband in Tahiti. Sounds like heaven, doesn’t it - celebrating together on the most romantic island in the world? Well, no, that's not exactly how it was.  

We couldn’t afford to be there in the first place. My first agent had told me, “I know you could probably write this book [Children of Eden] right now, but I can tell you that every potential publisher will ask you if you’ve been to Tahiti and if you say no, that’s going to dent your credibility.” I’d been hoping to spend my 50th in Venice but decided I’d better change our destination – even though it was much more expensive to fly half way around the globe to an island where everything is imported and costs a small fortune. Yes, we stayed at the Sheraton (only in American-owned hotels was there any guarantee of air conditioning), but we ate in our room like impoverished students, surviving on a diet of subsidized French bread and cheese and cans of imported sardines.

The second unglamorous factor was the weather. Having lived through many a steamy Washington summer, we thought we knew humidity. We were wrong. Being out in the Tahitian summer air was like being licked by the hot damp tongues of animals. Every inch of you sweated at every moment – even when it rained. Every day until my birthday, the sun shone fiercely in a deep blue sky as we rushed around the island (in an expensive rental car that we could only afford for four days) trying to find all the places I needed to see so I could write about them later. We promised ourselves we’d take the next day off to sit by the infinite pool at the Sheraton and treat ourselves to one cocktail each to toast my new decade. But the next morning we opened the heavy curtains to a monsoon. No romantic pool-side birthday for me. We spent the afternoon in the town cemetery, looking for names, just us and a bunch of soggy chickens picking our way between the graves.    

Third, they speak French in Tahiti – it’s been an outpost of France of one sort or another since 1842. Now I studied French for 6 years in high school and I was even married to a Frenchman for a year or two, but I cannot honestly say I speak the language. I can read it - lord knows I’ve worked my way through enough 19th-century French memoirs in the course of researching Children of Eden - but the spoken language is a whole different ballgame. And my husband speaks not a word. So it was up to me to struggle along in my pidgin French, understanding only every third sentence. I hadn’t thought it was possible to perspire any more than I was already doing, but it turns out that trying to summon up the right tense from some long-ago school textbook of French verbs really revs up the sweat glands. I muddled along okay when buying a soda or asking for our door key, but I had actual questions to ask real people – people descended from the characters I am writing about, who had stories that I needed to hear. Thank god a few of them spoke as much English as I did French, because otherwise we’d have been reduced to nodding and smiling. Which wouldn’t got me very far.

Then to top it all off, it took us the best part of two days to get home, including a 16-hour layover at LAX after our plane to Dulles was cancelled during which I broke a tooth.

But then there were the extraordinary moments – my first sight of the island of Moorea from the Sheraton’s terrace, a spectacular view I’d been reading about for years (see the picture above), seeing the little yellow house where members of the Salmon family have lived for over a century still standing among the hideous concrete buildings of Papeete, eating at a McDonalds at Punaauia that must have the most beautiful view in the world. And I do want to go back one day, maybe after – God willing – the book is published, but next time we go it’ll be in the balmy Tahitian wintertime, we’ll take along a translator, and we’ll have that cocktail by the Sheraton's infinity pool on someone else’s dime. Hey, a girl can dream….