Monday, November 28, 2011

Gathering idea isn't always abandoned because it fails some quality control test. The imagination doesn't crop annually like a reliable fruit tree. The writer has to gather whatever's there: sometimes too much, sometimes too little, sometimes nothing at all. And in the years of glut there is always a slatted wooden tray in some cool, dark attic, which the writer nervously visits from time to time; and yes, oh, dear, while he's been hard at work downstairs, up in the attic there are puckering skins, warning spots, a sudden brown collapse and the sprouting of snowflakes. What can he do about it?
Julian Barnes, Flaubert's Parrot


Flaubert's Parrot
The Idiot
Vicki Viidikas, New and Rediscovered 


the first french beans
a few yellow baby tomatoes
images and connotations for my novel


about making a christmas cake

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Simone and Virginia

The time-obsessed Virginia has been joined by her stylish friend Simone.

Did they ever meet in life? It is possible: Virginia (1882-1941) and Simone (1908-1986) lived partly contemporaneously (is that the word?).

Virginia was hopeless with clothes, never knew what looked good on her, and nervous about buying new ones.

Simone was more interested in clothes than Virginia. Of her early working life as a teacher:

We were also very concerned about our dress and make-up. Colette's usual garb consisted of Lacoste shirtwaists and daringly but successfully contrasted scarfs. She also owned a very attractive jacket (we thought it magnificent) of black leather, with white revers. Simone  [Labourdin] had a girl friend who bought her clothes in the grandes maisons, and who occasionally made her a present of some studiedly simple ensemble. My own single concession to elegance lay in my sweaters, which my mother knitted for me from very carefully chosen patterns, and which were often copied by my pupils. Our make-up and hair styling  gave the lie to that odd ideal which a parent had once enthusiastically suggested to Colette Audry, that we should pursue a 'secular nun' effect.

Simone de Beauvoir, The Prime of Life

Though she wasn't much interested in clothes, in A Room of One's Own, Virginia stood up for women's interests:

Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are 'important'; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes 'trivial'. And these values are transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room ...
... everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.

 And whom do I prefer? Though both these women are well-represented on my shelves, I'm a Virginia woman myself.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"There were a lot of snakes in our lives...

... at this time. At our mother's house enormous carpet pythons wound themselves around the rafters of the verandahs.    [...]
Snakes curled up in dark corners of Emma's studio; they stretched along the noggins of the unlined walls, still and milky-eyed, and shed their skins. Her studio was the perfect place for snakes, dim and cool and surrounded by sheltering trees."
Joanne Horniman, A Charm of Powerful Trouble, 2002

What's the world coming to, Hortensia? I have put my own book in the attic!

It's just that I've had a visitor at the blue room (that's just a skin, by the way, not a live snake)

and it put me in mind of something I've written. In fact, it was the snakiness of this room while I was writing that charming book that led to the snakes going into it. Art imitating life. Or something.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

" - he hates to have me write a word."

"If a physician of high standing, and one's own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression - a slight hysterical tendency - what is one to do?"

Since we were talking about attics and madness, Hortensia (by the way, your name means 'gardener' - one I wouldn't mind having myself, as I like cultivating things - tomatoes, lettuce, imaginary characters), there's a story that I'm putting in the attic as it ticks all the boxes: madness, women, attics, and writing.

You probably know The Yellow Wallpaper, a short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) ... not one of my favourites stories, but one I read from time to time, as its a great feminist classic and example of female Gothic.

There's something about the gothic that suits women's anger at their lot: think Jane Eyre, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and my own Charm of Powerful Trouble (though I'm not in their league), which I call Mullumbimby Gothic, a little known and represented genre.

A young wife and mother and her husband lease what amounts to a haunted house, and it is here she becomes unstuck. She has an unfortunate tendency to want to write, and her husband thinks she should be shut up alone in a top floor room to rest ... well, we know where that kind of thing leads. The wallpaper starts getting to you, for starters.

There is also evidence that some other mad person has been locked up there - though the woman naively thinks it may have been used as a gymnasium (the rings on the walls) or a children's room (the bars on the windows) ...

And that wallpaper, which someone has started peeling away from the wall:

"The colour is repellent, almost revolting: a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight. It is dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others.
No wonder the children hated it! I should hate it myself if I had to live in this room long.
There comes John, and I must put this away - he hates to have me write a word."

But the prisoner scribbles away secretly - she needs to write, it helps her. From the start, she is writing her story.

Then, in about the middle, the text changes, and no further reference is made to writing. Things become extremely strange, and the story becomes a stream of consciousness from her mind, rather than a written text.

At the end, she is completely mad.

We all know how writing keeps us sane (as well as judicious doses of fish oil, exercise, and so on). Being shut up with hideous wallpaper in a room that's clearly haunted is not prescribed these days.

I'm changing the colour of the wallpaper in the attic in honour of this story, but only until the next post. I think you'll agree, Hortensia, that we couldn't live with this hideous, sulphurous yellow.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Virginia Woolf dropped by ...

(though she's obviously very busy, just to wish me happy birthday ...)

From the back:

"I have lost friends, some by death ...
others through sheer inability to cross the street."

Virginia Woolf, The Waves, 1931

How well Virginia knows me ...

Friday, November 4, 2011


Just as I was thinking I'd like to re-read Love in a Cold Climate (I must have read it 30 years ago and no longer have a copy), I went to visit my sister, and there was a newish copy on her shelf ...

Today, over breakfast, I opened it to browse and almost the first thing I read were these words:

'I wish you needn't go on about Sonia being an old woman on the brink of the grave,' he said, 'she is barely sixty, you know, only about ten years older than your aunt Emily.'
Nancy Mitford, Love in a Cold Climate (1949)

I turned 60 a few days ago, and it is quite possible that I'm on the brink of my grave, but I don't feel it.