Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Four sisters

I have a friend with three sisters. Four girls in a family of only girls, each born a couple of years apart. She told me that three is the perfect number of sisters to have, and felt that, with only two daughters, she had left them inadequately sistered.

How, I wondered when I met her, could you befriend someone with so many sisters: surely she wouldn't need anyone else. But friends we have been for over 25 years, and very satisfying it has been.

"There is no friend like a sister
In calm and stormy weather."

wrote my own much older sister in my autograph book when I was a child. It was a quotation from Christina Rossetti's 'Goblin Market', a poem I used as a motif when I wrote A Charm of Powerful Trouble.

In that book there are two sisters, which is often the case in sister stories. Sisters in fairy tales often have a good, fair sister and an evil, dark one. There are the two sisters in Margaret Drabble's A Summer Birdcage, one of my favourite books.  Sisters often compete with each other, as those two do, but when the chips are down, who do you turn to?

Though as far as I know Margaret Drabble still hasn't much to do with her sister AS Byatt.

Lear had three daughters, and three is a powerful, magic number, also often used in fairy tales.

But in Junichiro Tanizaki's (1886-1965) book The Makioka Sisters (1948) there are four sisters.

So far, I've read this book twice, but as I only discovered it a few years ago I can be forgiven for so few readings. I know I will read it again, and perhaps again.

It concerns four sisters in Osaka before the second world war. The two younger, unmarried sisters live with the second-oldest married one because they prefer to; normally they should live with the eldest. So they are slightly unconventional.

Things are changing in Japan, but these sisters are very traditional - or nearly so. They belong to a once great family who are declining in their fortunes. Most of the activity in the book comes from their attempts to marry off Yukiko, who is thirty and frustratingly shy and retiring. The youngest, Taeko, is twenty-five and the most unconventional; she is having a secret liaison and wants Yukiko to be married so that she can be next.

So action is limited (a book exactly the way I like it!) but every moment is fascinating. There is a Big Flood and a Big Storm, but the rest of the interest in in the characters. It's a quiet, nostalgic book, quite melancholy in its mood, as it depicts the end of a once-great family, and of a vanished era.

Typical is the episode of the squeaking obi:

"You are going to wear that obi?" asked Yukiko. Taeko was helping Sachiko tie the obi. "You wore that one - when was it?- we went to a piano recital."
"I did wear this one."
"And every time you took a breath it squeaked."
"Did it really?"
"Not very loud, but definitely a squeak. Every time you breathed. I swore I would never let you wear that obi to another concert."
"Which one shall I wear, then?" Sachiko pulled obi after obi from the drawer.
"This one." Taeko picked up an obi with a spiral pattern.
"Will it go with my kimono?"
"Exactly the right one. Put it on, put it on." Yukiko and Taeko had finished dressing some time before. Taeko spoke as though to a reluctant child, and stood before her sister to help tie the second obi. Sachiko knelt at the mirror and gave a little shriek.
"What is the matter?"
"Listen. Carefully. Do you hear? It squeaks." Sachiko breathed deeply to demonstrate the squeak.
"You are right. It squeaks."
The Makioka Sisters (1948)

This is a story that builds slowly and quietly, with a steady accretion of detail and character - until, by the end, you have absorbed the Makioka sisters into your own life. They are unforgettable.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Thinking about Alice

I can remember the first time I heard the name Alice Munro.

It was 1980, and we (my partner, our two-year-old and me) had spent a week driving through British Columbia to Banff. We'd skipped stones on enormous glassy lakes surrounded by fir trees, eaten at diners where there were pick-ups with guns and dead deer in the back, stayed in strange little cabins, given a lift to a hitch-hiker who told us about bears, and stopped off at a little town covered in deep snow where we bought a little soapstone carving of a beaver.

Almost back to Vancouver again, afternoon sunshine coming through the windows, the radio had a story about this Canadian writer. I knew at once (it was falling in love at first mention) that I would love her writing, and after dropping off our hire car (our 'little red sporty car', the newest car we'd ever driven) I walked into the first likely-looking bookshop (smallish, independent) and asked if they had any books by Alice Munro.

---Ah, our Alice, said the assistant.

 I bought all the titles they had and posted them home, later buying others when we went to the UK.

My favourite is The Beggar Maid (and see how worn, how well-thumbed, how faded it has become.)

From a page taken at random:

She grew tired, irritable, sleepless. She tried to think admiringly of Patrick. His lean, fair-skinned face was really very handsome. He must know a number of things. He graded papers, presided at examinations, he was finishing his thesis. There was a small of pipe tobacco and rough wool about him, that she liked. He was twenty-four. No other girl she knew, who had a boyfriend, had one as old as that.

Then without warning she thought of him saying, "I suppose I don't seem very manly." She thought of him saying, "Do you love me? Do you really love me?" He would look at her in a scared and threatening way. Then when she said yes he said how lucky he was, how lucky they were, he mentioned friends of his and their girls, comparing their love affairs unfavourably to his and Rose's. Rose would shiver with irritation and misery. She was sick of herself as much as him, she was sick of the picture they made at this moment, walking across a snowy downtown park, her bare hand snuggled in Patrick's, in his pocket. Some outrageous and cruel things were being shouted, inside her. She had to do something, to keep them from getting out. She started tickling and teasing him.
Rose comes from a small town; she's a scholarship girl. Patrick is rich and snobbish. They marry. It doesn't last.

I'm seldom try to analyse why I like particular writing; I simply like to read and absorb.

But to attempt to explain my lasting love for Alice Munro:

No one writes about women like she does, with such tight, interesting, honest writing. There is not one boring sentence. She writes about people in small towns, people who clean motels or farm, or make jam - as well as about academics and women who often have an artistic bent. You come away feeling that all lives are interesting, all people important. (There are no dull people, only dull writing.) And like all my favourite people, she is often funny.

I don't think I've mentioned that she writes short stories, not novels, but you probably know that. The Beggar Maid is a series of linked stores, about Rose, and her stepmother Flo.

Each of her stories has extraordinary depth. She builds the story like someone constructing an arch, with blocks of narrative going back and forth in time. Right at the end there is often the brick in the centre of the arch - the telling scene or detail - that holds the whole thing together and makes it work.

I think that perhaps, when I started writing a few years after discovering her, her example gave me the courage to write about the people in the small towns and rural places where I live.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Once upon a bookcase...

It's that time of year again, and now I seem to have disappeared down the rabbit hole and have turned up somewhere in the UK, being interviewed by another Jo, here.

And there's a review of the girl, as well.

Thank you, Jo!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

...her head bowed in shame...

It's less than a week since we lost Julia Gillard, our first female Prime Minister. Apparently, she didn't go down well with the voting public, and was replaced in a leadership spill by Kevin Rudd, who, according to a new book, relentlessly stalked her for the leadership since she replaced him in 2010.

I'm not a diehard fan of Gillard, but she did a more than competent - I'd say admirable- job in the circumstances. I simply don't get why the public prefers Rudd. After Gillard was gone, a sentence kept going through my head. It's the final sentence of The Bookshop, by Penelope Fitzgerald, about a woman who opens a bookshop in a small town, and it fails.

As the train drew out of the station she sat with her head bowed in shame, because the town in which she had lived for nearly ten years had not wanted a bookshop.

As Julia Gillard said in her parting speech, her being a woman didn't explain everything about why she had lost, but it also didn't explain nothing. And in the weeks, months, and even years prior to her departure from the leadership, she was subjected to a sickening amount of bullying in the media and elsewhere.

And so I sit with my head bowed in shame, because the country I have lived in for over 60 years, did not want a female Prime Minister.