Part 2 of Writing a novel trilogy
Character is fascinating. When I’m writing fiction I can get lost in the people I’m writing, even begin to dream their dreams. The mysteriousness and opaqueness of others is intriguing, but so to is their context. Who we are, the stories we tell ourselves or allow others to tell about us, arise from a matrix of particular factors, amongst them time and place.
Where we are is who we are
In This is the End of the Story, Cassie comes of age in 1970s Teesside and her context helps to shape her. The industrial landscape, the decline of employment, the cultural expectations of a class, time and place, are issues that she has to face in forming any sense of identity.
Cassie shares my own background, though fictionalised. But memory is a tricky thing so I still found myself doing lots of research — songs I thought I’d heard; fashions and news items. Despite that, there was a familiarity of place that informed me and gave the writing a significant grounding. When it came to Toledo, though, another major setting in the novel, I was on very different territory.
There was no way to visit eleventh century Toledo so I had to rely on archival material and a novel I’d read as a child, Casilda of the Rising Moon. Books and the Internet were invaluable, but it was only after I travelled to Toledo that I felt confident of this part of the writing.
When I stood in a tiny mosque that Casilda might have stood in 900 years earlier, or visited a tenth century Islamic cave-house, I felt a sense of place that I couldn’t experienced from books.
One of Cinnamon Press’s novelists, Landeg White. who passed away at the end of 2017, was someone who knew a great deal about ‘place’ and the writing of place. He remarked that going to a place to do in situ research was ‘absolutely necessary’. He was re-reading George Eliot’s Romola at the time, and admiring the way she took the trouble to find out things instead of making it all up.
Places are characters
To some extent we can fictionalise places and imagine them. But if the place is essential, then we should do everything possible to visit it. Ir is, after all, the vital atmosphere, history, and culture that enhances the writing. Moreover, moving ourselves out of place, out of our comfort zones, pushes our boundaries. It makes us more porous to influences larger than ourselves.
In 2012 the ‘Writing Britain’ exhibition at the British Library captivated me. There is something powerful about an original manuscript spattered with corrections. There is something intimate and epiphanic at once. All the books in the exhibition had a strong sense of place.
I saw the hand-written last page of Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm and Alan Garner’s The Owl Service (one of my favourite books from childhood). And a first edition of ‘Little Gidding’:
the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started
Kathleen Raine’s Northumberland journals, in her own hand, entralled me:
those abiding essences, the rocks and hills and mountains
raising their voices to
utter their wild credo
next to a bit that reads like my own journal, talking about cold rural houses in winter with no central heating and managing the logs.
I came out awed, dazzled and dazed. I had entered a trance in there among runes and spells, within the song lines of connection. When I left, the world felt too bright and sharp. This is why we write — for this extraordinary intimacy with strong magic, the reverie of words that make worlds.
And in this enchantment place is dominant, whether it is the ‘nowhere’ of utopia or the precise smells and sights of a Paris street. Writing takes us to a place — real and visceral, imagined and strange, dream or nightmare, anchored on a map or found only in the interior of a mind. Good writing takes us ‘somewhere’ even when the place is ‘nowhere.’
Because it is in a place that we begin to narrativise our lives, and the lives of our characters. We tell stories to reconcile ourselves to time — to the huge events of cosmology, to the big and small and hidden events of history. And in doing so we locate those stories — somewhere, someplace.
A place of difference and melancholy
In A Remedy For All Things, Cassie, now using her full name, Catherine, undertakes research on a writing trip to Budapest. She is following the footsteps of the 1930s poet, Attila József. The novel is set in Budapest in November 1993, one of the coldest winters on record. Catherine’s story interweaves with that of Selene Virág, a woman who took part in the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 and was imprisoned. And Selene has her own strange connections to Attila József.
I couldn’t travel to the Budapest of the 30s, 50s or 90s, but I had the chance to soak up a sense of place for a month. After a launch in Paris and train rides across Europe we arrived at Budapest’s Keleti station. Budapest was unlike anywhere we’d ever visited.
Not only is the Hungarian language impenetrable, but the sense of place was different than anything I could compare it to. In the centre of a capital city cars give way to pedestrians and stop to let people cross. People are polite and helpful — ‘you’re welcome’ seems to be the phrase of choice in every café or shop — yet there are few smiles.
The current politics in Hungary are not encouraging. One blog I by a Hungarian/Norwegian writer, talked about leaving due to crony capitalism, nepotism and poor working conditions.
Life under Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party is replete with extreme right-wing thinking. And the major opposition party, Jobbik, is even more worrying and makes no secret of its views on ‘ethnic purity’. In such an environment, Budapest is gaining a reputation as a haven for disgruntled nationalists from across the West.
And the current political scene isn’t the only factor in this atmosphere of melancholy. Sadness isn’t a new phenomenon in Budapest — as we can see from by Nicky Looms’s review of László Földényi’s Melancholy in the Los Angeles Review of Books’.
While Földényi’s book addresses philosophical questions of melancholy, Loomis focusses on this cultural trait. Her mother tells her that Hungary is not only landlocked but has suffered several occupations. She wonders:
Can pain be passed down … The more I heard while living there, the more I began to project — e.g., the pain in a woman’s eyes on a train was because of some horror she witnessed during her lifetime. This is a very powerful and dangerous road to go down as a writer, but it is unavoidable as you begin to research a place and write about it, to start to connect the dots in the landscape you are moving through. Let me not grow too fond of other people’s pain, I kept reminding myself.
Yet that pain, that melancholy, kept presenting itself during my time there.
She cites the extraordinary isolation of the Hungarian language, unlike any neighbouring language. Hungarian literature has been slow to find translation or recognition. Then there is the bleakness of the landscape, the interminable winters (captured in the writing László Krasznahorkai and films by Béla Tarr). Hungary even has its own ‘suicide song’ (‘Gloomy Sunday’, covered by Billie Holiday). Even the national anthem sings about sorrow and pity. Loomis quotes Judith Sollosy of Corvina Press cautioning that melancholy has sometimes been anything from a stereotype to a fad. But Sollosy also notes that Hungary has not only suffered constant defeats, but celebrates its losses.
Within hours of arriving in Budapest, the ‘melancholy’ was noticeable. It prompted me to search out other perspectives on it, as well as do more research into current affairs there.
Environment shapes character
The characters in my book know plenty about sorrow, pity and suffering. One is a fictionalised version of the exceptional poet, Attila József, who committed suicide in his early thirties. Before his death under a rail carriage, he struggled with severe mental health issues, spending periods in institutions. He also struggled with the politics of his day and unhappy personal relationships.
Another character, Selene, is a young woman in 1959. Her Jewish family have fled from Paris ahead of the Nazis (where her French mother met her Hungarian father). But in Budapest her father is conscripted into the brutal Munkaszolgálat, a forced labour that targeted Jews. Selene later takes part in the 1956 uprising. Arrested and detained (for a long time without trial) she has no idea whether she will survive to see her young daughter again.
The main character s a writer, Catherine — the protagonist of the novel, This is the End of the Story. Struggling with a series of personal tragedies and losses, she tries to make sense of these two lives and how they might fit together.
Writing in Budapest, I became acquainted with a city full of beauty, yet teeming with ambivalence and poverty. Once grand buildings crumbled alongside others that were shiny and renovated. But I was happy to be in that place, somewhere that had known so many tears and continues to do so.
There was an authenticity there and a huge amount to learn. And although I could only skim the surface in the few weeks it was a privilege to be able to research the novel in the place it’s set. To soak up something of what shapes particular people in particular cultures, moments of history and landscapes
I was able to write and talk to writers and archivists in Budapest, visit museums and walk the streets that my characters walked. Place and political context make a huge difference to personal stories.
The stories we tell ourselves and allow others to tell about us shape us. Environment shapes character, even in fiction.
Meet me in Budapest as the story unfolds…
Want to become a different story?
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