Blog: Writing seriously in older age .

What kind of person begins to write seriously at the age of 80?

Wendy Robertson tells the story of the evolution of Hugh Cross’s new book Scenes from a Life

Hugh’s Story

This collection, of cameos written over a period of eight months, came about through my friendship with the writer Wendy Robertson. Over some months we spent some time exchanging books, ideas and stories from our lives. When she first suggested I try my hand at writing some of this down, I reacted by persuading myself that, with my background in the study of English Literature, I was more suited to the role of critic rather than creator.

But then, unnoticed by me, the seed had been sown. So it was that one summer evening, right out of the blue, I sat down, grabbed a pen and paper, and just scribbled away. So, I wrote on, reassured by Wendy that I wasn’t expected to write the great English novel. She always insists that writing is a joyous thing to do for any literate person.

I have been scribbling, drafting, transcribing, and enjoying my own writing ever since. In the process of writing the pieces in Scenes from a Life, I have discovered the relevance of the experiences – good and bad – that shaped this life. I like to think that through the joy of transforming my experiences into prose I could make something general out of the particular and that age need be no barrier in learning this life-enhancing skill.

Hugh's cover

 Wendy’s Story

Hugh – the brother of a friend – has been on the fringes of my life for many years.  He occasionally baby sat for my children when they were small. Over the years we had occasional conversations about books and writing. Hugh was always a good and often entertaining storyteller, but only in recent years have we strayed onto the possibility of him writing something about his life.

He was born in 1936 into a privileged middle-class Leicester family. The second son of four children, he has had an interesting life, indeed a life which in the end has proved worth writing about. Hugh was obviously intellectually gifted. He went from private school on to Wyggeston, the famous grammar school, from where he won a place to the University of Cambridge. He only took up his Cambridge place after, like most boys of his generation, doing his National Service in the army. Apart from a short-lived sortie to Malta in the Suez crisis he was stationed mostly in Germany as a junior intelligence officer.

After the army he went to Cambridge. He relished college life, its social life and particularly the emphasis on theatre – a commitment   which has lasted him all his life. Although not in the same theatre group, he was a contemporary of Derek Jacobi and Ian McKellen.  Hugh relished acting and directing in his own theatre group and thoroughly enjoyed the life, alongside his studies.

Unfortunately, the last stages of his experience at Cambridge were marred by family tragedy. After graduating, amongst other things, he tried teaching and working at the DSS in Leicester and London. Later, he underwent a period of mental illness involve ng a long period of recovery. This recovery was helped by the revival of his life-long interest in theatre, film and classical literature, while in his seventies, cultivating an entirely new interest in fine contemporary literature.

At last, as he approached eighty years, living a quiet life in the South Durham Hugh began for the first time to write and reflect on various aspects of his interesting life

And now at more than eight years old he has produced this unique collection of cameos, reviews and commentaries. Some of the titles of the cameos – taking him from 5 years to 80 years – tell their own story. At sixteen years old ‘Playing the Piano for the Boys’. / At seventeen years old, ‘Best Friend’. /At nineteen, ’The Intelligence Corps?’ At thirty seven, ‘Last Ditch in the North’. / At thirty eight, ‘Milestones of Recovery’ At eighty one Christmas at the Lakes.’

This is good writing. It is no sentimental journey, no self-indulgent memoir. In my view, Hugh Cross’s insightful writing has both universal human significance and literary value. Reading these stories offers serious pleasure for anyone interested in reflecting on their own lives and through creative writing, knowing the importance of their individual experience to the wider world.

Scenes from a Life also shows that no matter how old you are you can embark on a new skill and bring it to bear on the quality of your daily life. It certainly keeps your brain ticking over and beats Sodoku and Yoga into fits.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DAMSELFLT notebooks

POSTED JULY 17

A Unique Bookshop for Alice Gordon and Wendy

(Article first published in the Northern Echo…)

In these days of bookshop chains and publishing conglomerates there is much compensatory talk among readers and writers regarding the value of more independent publishing and private booksellers and bookshops.

This has been on my mind this week because I spent a very happy afternoon in a bookshop in my home town of Bishop Auckland, talking with the bookseller about my new book Becoming Alice  out this week on Amazon in paperback and on Kindle. With my writing friend Avril Joy I was talking with the bookseller Gordon Draper about arranging a book signing for Becoming Alice in his shop in the near future.

In recent years my home town of Bishop Auckland has been brought back to life by the advent of the Auckland Project* which is developing new art galleries, enhancing the historic market square and the buildings that enclose it. The Auckland Project is refurbishing the historic bishop’s Castle and its Park as well as  initiating a fascinating  archaeological recovery of its centuries’ old kitchen gardens.

In the early days a person involved in this project said to me how strange it was that it a place with this history – both distant and recent –  should have no bookshop. But it does have a bookshop of a rather unusual kind on the little street off the marketplace called Bondgate. Not unnaturally the shop is called Bondgate Books. But this is a bookshop with a difference.

When you enter its 18th century doorway you enter a world of book-magic: a veritable Aladdin’s cave of books, The books and papers are stacked from floor-to-ceiling, as well as in boxes and piles on the floor. Gordon Draper, the Aladdin of the unique Bondgate Books, has been a market book trader going back 30 years. His father before him also dealt in books and – Gordon tells me – was instrumental of bringing magazines like Private Eye to the north-east. Gordon himself still has bookstalls in markets in Darlington, Middlesbrough and on the quayside in Newcastle.

I have a friend who regularly shops there. He tells me he has acquired some literary treasures there at a decent price. The second-hand stock extends from contemporary best-selling fiction – to books from the early 20th and late 19th century – now collectible is a very decent price. There are early 20th century mining textbooks, books on the history of Scotland, of the North East, of Yorkshire. In Gordon’s shop you will find  books on football, books on both world wars, books on science fiction and fantasy, books and nature and science. You name it, Gordon stocks it.

You might wonder how you might find your way around this cornucopia of print. You just need to express your interest and the Aladdin of this particular book cave –  who knows all his books – will lead you to them. Gordon finds me a very old map of the North. (I love maps). ‘Look!’ he says. ‘No A1!’ There are bargains everywhere here, but Gordon knows 51qP1d2cJTL the value of his stock ‘See this! £50. See this? Worth £100!’

Collectors call on him regularly to check his stock. He knows their interests and on his travels keeps an eye open for books to match their taste and their pocket. As for myself, having written novels for so many years, it’s no surprise to me that many of them now are doing the rounds in the second-hand book trade. Gordon seems to know who I was and tells me he has sold many of my novels through the years. He darts away and finds a copy of my novel Family Ties. He gives it to me to sign, carefully finding a rubber to erase the present price. I am intrigued that my signature may make a difference to the price.

To Buy 

Gordon seems pleased that I will be happy come to sign copies of my new novel Becoming Alice here in his shop.

I explain to him that the story Becoming Alice takes place between 1941 and 1951 and is set in this part of Durham and also in post-war London. The story culminates in the Festival of Britain on London’s South Bank in 1951. So, I think, this book could very well interest local readers and also some of the more cosmopolitan tourists who are coming into Bishop Auckland to see the changes and visit the regular stunning Kynren spectacular associated with The Auckland Project.

Thinking of my signing event, it occurs to me that some of the other books here also illustrate some of the historic times between 1941 and 1951.

I can just picture such books all around me, as Avril and I sit at a little table in a cleared corner, coffee cups in hand, signing copies of Becoming Alice and sharing stories with readers. I would guess that the cross-section of readers here will be rather larger than in the more conventional bookshop. As we leave the shop. Gordon vanishes again and a return with some flower books and prints for Avril who has mentioned that she is keen on such sources for her collaging. I will be signing copies of Becoming Alice at Bondgate Books in Bishop Auckland between 2 and  4 o’clock on 2nd August. Be nice to see you there.

 

 

Writing in and Out of Jail.

These two pieces are  my personal celebration of  National Writing Day.

The first piece is  written by S., one of the many talented and interesting women I met when I was working as writer in Residence at a women’s prison. These women later inspired me to write my novel Paulie’s Web.

The second piece –inspired also my prison experience – illustrated my own reflections on the connection between writing with freedom, whatever the confinement.

 

Writing in Jail by S,

When I came into prison I wanted to send a poem to my partner to let him know I was thinking of him and my family. I looked around the library but couldn’t find any poem which suited how I was feeling. I decided to write my own poem and found that word simply spilled onto the paper.

After being here six weeks I now have a varied collection of my own poems which are going into my own little book. Not that I want any kind of souvenirs of my time in prison but this book represents a period of my life. It is also a collection of my thoughts and the feelings I have gone through over this time.

The poems are in order from the first ones I wrote at the beginning of my sentence and through to the end. The beginning has poems that show the love I have for my family members, my mum my daughter. In the middle are poems between confusion and anger about the status of my soon to be ex-partner. The last poems are to friends and family. I found that writing these poems down on paper relieve the stress and anger I was feeling. I also felt proud to have produced an end product which made me feel happy in myself like I’d achieved something for myself

 

Writing is the Sound of the Soul Breathing. WR

Writing is the sound of the soul breathing –
it is measured, shapely, intended;
every breath out predicates every breath in;
each sentence brings forward another one –
every word a platform for the next jump in meaning

We breathe in and out, in and out

in lines, in paragraphs, in pages, in volumes –
the writer’s life laid out  in a million words –
each one separate, elegant, leaping off the page
instinct with meaning

Writing is the notation of the quiet soul –
not blasted out by clarinets and trumpets –
rather it is dark smoke rising in the air;
in the end the words lie there

just waiting for your eye.

They lie on the page in ranks and lines
waiting for you to add your sound
to my notation on the page –
creating a mutual world
new to your soul and mine.

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Here Wendy posts about the time she completed her novel The Bad Child.

 About Finishing The Bad Child.  

Now I’m floating free

 The writing life is cyclic, offering different writing, emotional, inventive challenges at each point in the cycle. Writing a novel is an organic process, born of a glimpse, a thought, a new insight perhaps a year or two before. This could be a line from a book or a newspaper, an overheard conversation, an image that fixes in the mind, a linked memory from childhood. When I have embraced this core idea I cast around start to think, talk, scribble, and dream stories around this core idea in both my waking and sleeping life until it becomes a solid reality in my mind.

At last, into this mass of notes, ideas, research and story-telling, walks a distinctive character with a mind of her own.Then another. And another. These characters begin speaking to each other in different tones and accents, with different agendas and priorities in their lives. At one point I wake up with their conversations in my head.

And somehow out of this inchoate mass of stuff emerges a sense of a beginning, Eventually I manage to write a beginning that locks these characters in their certain time, their certain place, with their certain preoccupations. With my imagination now fully charged, the novel insinuates itself into my daily life, somewhere near the centre. And I write. And write.

Now and then, as I write on, I have to slow down just to check that the story I’m writing today has grown properly out of my yesterday’s prose, and that of the day before, and the week and even the year before.

So, after working for a year or so in this way I find that this self-willed creation begins to move towards  its close and I find myself looking for a sense of an ending. Now is the time to  slow down again to make the best ending that for this particular the story. If – as I do – you write close to real life, then ending a novel is not easy. The ending has to fit the narrative logic bedded in this story’s organic growth. As well as this, the ending has to imply a new logic, a new organic possibility, a spurt of new life – life beyond the story.

Once the end has been written, it’s time to put on my cap and gown and be my own editor – to check every word, every line, every paragraph for correct meaning, syntax, and spelling. I must check that time, place and characterisation serve the consistency and the dynamism of the story. At this point I usually read the prose out loud to check its that the sound flows.

Now the manuscript is as perfect as I can make it.

In the end, like any intelligent writer, I understand that my novel just cannot be perfect. The story has its own existence inside of me and I am not sufficiently objective to catch every flaw. And, like any intelligent writer, I know that my story needs a skilled, outside editor and proof-reader (not a ‘friendly reader’) before it can go out there into the cold world. This wizard of a person will inevitably pick up snags and flaws that I, with the narrative events printed on my soul, will have missed.

I discovered my own eagle-eyed editor/proof-reader  Clive Johnson two books* ago. Since then I’ve realised that once the manuscript been through his capable hands I can proceed with confidence to the further challenges of designing the cover and going through the process onto publication.

Then the book is published and walks out there in the world. For any reader to enjot/

Oh joy!  The time has come for me to start floating free again in the outside world, catching gossamer words and images in my mind that will eventually provide me with an organic core for an exciting new novel which will keep me alive and kicking, thinking, imagining and writing for the next eighteen months.

I am realising now that the nature of my floating-free process ensures that each novel is distinct from the others; a different species perhaps. This difference keeps me fascinated and- I hope – my valued readers intrigued.

 

 

POSTED ON JUNE 20, 2018

Sharon Griffiths and Amity’s Angel.

Working with Sharon.

It was so  good  to work with  fellow professional –  journalist and novelist Sharon Griffiths,  in developing and publishing her  new novel Amity and the Angel. 

This is Sharon’s third published  novel, It is a marvelously perceptive venture into the exciting field of  future fiction – imagining life in a  future world which has been virtually destroyed after the destructive 21st Century Oil  Wars.

The heroine, teenager Amity, lives on a distant island which – in its own process of survival – has reverted to a restrictive religion-obsessed world. Amity  battles on with the restrictions, trying to assert her right to live a normal life.  Her  childhood sweetheart, who  had left the island, now returns strangely changed. One day on the beach  Amity  comes across a golden haired wounded figure whom she takes to be  an angel.

More about Sharon Griffiths and Amity

Originally from Pembrokeshire, West Wales. Sharon ended up in the North East of England by way of    Bristol  University and Radio Oxford.   For some years she has written regular columns and feature articles for The Northern Echo   (http://tiny.cc/ia6lky) and  the Eastern Daily Press in Norwich – as well as features for national newspapers.

Sharon’s columns and articles are widely popular for their intelligence, warmth and humour as well as  their insight into domestic, cultural and political life. Her previous novels, The Accidental Time Traveller and The Lost Guide to Life and Love, gained plaudits here and abroad.

With Amity and The Angel Sharon enters new territory. In this novel we flip back what appears to be medieval times in a severe Protestant island sect. However this is the contemporary world, after world-wide oil wars have destroyed much of the planet. (How resonant this is, of present day fears …)

The island is loosely connected to equally isolated mainland communities and is serviced by travelling tradesmen who  bring them news of the wider world. On the island there are no machines, few horses, no dancing, no singing, even in church, where there is much haranguing and instruction and bullying authority, There is  a chilling scene here, of the public shaming of a girl who has had a child out-of-wedlock

Amity does no fit into this oppressive community with is clerical hierarchy and gender based laws. Here own discontent is fed by the memories if the grandmother she takes care of, who has told her tales of times when there was singing and dancing, mobile phones, high heels and lipstick.

After Amity’s friend Finn leaves the island for the mainland, she finds solace in a creature she finds in a cave on the beach. She thinks of him as an Angel . Perhaps he can be a key to change and the restoration of normality both for her and the world community?

A wonderful and thought provoking read. W.R.

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P OSTED ON MAY 26, 2018 

The post-partum delights of editing

  1. Scroll down after ‘Editing’ to read  ‘Changing Lives’

‘It is very salutary to address someone else’s deep edit of your work,’ so said my professional proofreader Clive Johnson. I sent my baby away, sure that it would give him  an easy job of proofreading. I have been flattered before when he used the magic phrase ‘this is pretty clean’. Inevitably, after I sent the manuscript away I bit my nails with a degree of uncertainty. Later, reading the returned, proofed manuscript, I felt a slight reproof when he commented that was harder work than usual.

This might be down to the global changes I made when the novel was just about finished.  (I changed the names of two main characters towards the end.  I felt they were begging me to do this.) To do this I applied the useful instruction find and replace.  The old names were found and replaced with the new or modified names.

However,  in the final copy some of the new names were bizarrely buried in surrounding text and had to be disentangled. I thought I had caught all the anomalies in my final run through. But Clive knew better.  I hadn’t caught all of these. But by then I was probably a little bit word-blind. Like any mother, I was blind to even the minor faults in my beloved offspring.

Undaunted,  I settled down to go through Clive’s proofed copy line by line . Alongside my computer I have the notes from   my other first-readers who may or may not altogether agree with the file as it is now. I felt it would be useful us to compare them.

But Clive’s proofing was as near flawless as any piece of work can be.

All these concerns and approaches deepen and extend  the organic process of taking a novel to its final stage -of Making the Book*  the best it can be.

In some ways this has not been  unlike the process I experienced when I used to write for a large publisher. This process has been  equally meticulous but not quite so corporate* where departments as well as individuals combine to do the job

One principle of the processes of editing and proofreading is that the emerging text fully reflects the writer’s intention. It should not reflect the taste or predilection of the editor or proof-reader. One problem here in the more corporate method is that it can reflect the predilection of the market director regarding the taste of the readers.* I have always had rather more confidence than this in the intelligence and the perception of my readers and their ability to encounter and enjoy my story.

I am now looking so forward very soon to Making the Book called Becoming Alice 

 

*Footnote 1. To find out more about my process hit the Private Publishing tab in the header.

*Footnote 2. I did try to resist my publisher’s proposal to include the comparison of my work with that of Catherine Cookson on the cover.  I resisted this strongly  despite the fact that I honour and revere the astonishing ability of this writer to communicate stories across area and national boundaries. As writers we were as alike as trees and mountains. My resistance, because of my lack of power in that corporate situation, was ignored. The case is different now..

 

Changing Lives…

Note from Wendy R. I was talking to my friend H about the impact and function of reading groups and I thought of  the life-changing experience of visiting some reading groups  in Boston USA in 2000 when I was Writer in Residence at a women’s prison here in the UK. This radical experience confirmed my conviction that literature changes lives both in and out of prison.

Extract from Our Report.

‘The face-to-face interaction between the two groups – professionals and offenders, judges and judged – throughout the programme, was the key to its success. It centred on group discussions of literature chosen for its significance for the task at hand. All members of the group read the texts and participate on an equal, mutually respectful footing. The underlying proposition was that such discussion, under such circumstances, evokes such a level of participation, identification of motive and objectification of behaviour, that the lives of all the participants are changed.

I thought you might be interested in  the full report. If so click on the tab above on the Damselfly Home Page entitled Changing Lives Through Literature.

I wondered if you had  a book or books that changed your life?

Wendy

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POSTED ONMAY 26, 2018EDIT”CHANGING LIVES THROUGH LITERATURE”

 

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POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 29, 2016E

Character Building Workshop

The thing that separates the professional writer from the amateur writer is the strength of their characterisation.

Have fun with the following – as you start to build the characters in your short story or your novel.

Characters – where to start?

You may recall characters who live on outside the story where they were born:
Think of Bill Sykes and Fagin
Think of Elizabeth Bennet and Rupert Bear
Think of Hannibal Lecter and Scarlett O’Hara
Think of Molly Bloom and Paul Morel
Think of Huckleberry Finn and Holly Golightly

Remember:

The characters in a story are the most important element.

  1. They are the colour and the depth In your narative,
  2. They carry the story forward in their wake
  3. They are the medium and the message.
  4. They are the parts and the sum

Points to remember.

  1. The character may share many of your insights and experiences but s/he is not you.(This is, of course, very liberating….)2  Only boring characters are all-good, or all bad.3  However outrageous and outlandish a character’s actions and sayings are, they must be within the logic of this character. There is some kind of inner explanation for everything, even if you don’t explain it within the story.

You, the writer, are becoming the expert in these people. 

Naming your Character
Names can give us personal, regional, national, historic and idiosyncratic clues to character. Do not choose a name lightly. If you choose not to name your character it should be a deliberate artistic choice, not a copping out.  (Read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, where the narrator is not named.)

Seeing/Feeling/Smelling/ Hearing your Character
It could be that you  never mention the appearance of your character in your story, but you need to see him or her in your own mind. Characteristics will filter into your storytelling.     Close your eyes.  SEE!

For instance

  • Is s/he tall or short? Tallish, shortish?
  • Is s/he thin with thick ankles?
  • Is s/he fat with beautiful legs?
  • Does s/he smell of cinnamon or chicken-fat?
  • Lavender or old sweat? Machine oil or patchouli?
  • Is his or her skin smooth or rough to the touch?
  • Does s/he have spots or old boils, Tattoos or needle marks?
  • Is it golden, white greys, brown, black, pink or sallow?
  • Does s/he have large or small hands?
  • Are they clean or dirty?
  • Are they used to manual work or non-manual work?
  • Are they masculine or feminine hands?
  • What do you know from the way he or she speaks?
  • Describe the timbre of her voice
  • How does s/he make you, the storyteller, feel?Where did you first see her/him?How does s/he speak? Does s/he have speech mannerisms?

Contradictions
Interesting characters are often perverse. Think of the vegetarian butcher, the gentle torturer, the plain seductress, the beautiful loser, the mild murderer, the loving betrayer, the richthief, the fit invalid, the superstitious scientist, the child hatingteacher …
Can you add to this list?

Try-Out Your Character!
NB, No matter whether or not you mention any of the above characteristics, they will be implicit in the prose you use in these try-outs.
Try …

  • Write ten lines in the first person about your character’s fifth birthday.
  • Write their own view of the star sign under which they were they born
  • Write a sentence written by them about a scar they have on their body.
  • Write ten lines about the view from their window when they were (or will be …) 25 years old.
  • Write three lines from their school report when they were thirteen. What do their teachers say?
  • Write five lines of dialogue between them and their father or their mother.
  • Write a first person account (ten lines…) of the first time they fell in love.
  • Write a first person account (ten lines …) of the first time they broke the law.
  • Write a monologue of them trying to make someone give them a job they desperately want.
  • Write a monologue of a friend trying to describe them to a very interested police officer.

 

NOW! Put them in your story.

© Wendy Robertson 2016

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POSTED ONSEPTEMBER 29, 2016EDIT”THE PLACE WHERE MEANING MAY LIE: TONI MORRISON”

The Place Where Meaning May Lie: Toni Morrison

ALL READERS AND WRITERS HAVE NOVELS WHICH ARE THEIR BENCHMARK FOR QUALITY, CREATIVITY, AND LITERARY VERVE.

THIS NOVEL IS MY BENCHMARK, MY LIFELONG INSPIRATION.

Like Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs Dalloway’, Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ exploded my views on how language works. Like George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’, this novel stunned me with its subtle view on the politics of a complicated world at a certain time in history,.

However Toni Morrison’ed ‘Beloved’, was the first great novel I read without bidding from scholar or teacher on page or in person. It was 1987 when I first read this novel and felt it to be great. I did not know then that ‘Beloved’ would win the Pulitzer Prize, or its author the Nobel Prize for Literature.

I read this novel once, then reread it instantly to find out why it had made such an impact on me. Then I read it again, to ignite more fireworks in my head with Toni Morrison’s words, her prisms of meaning, her verbal music. That was years ago. This week, I read it again and, the catherine-wheels have started to spin, spitting off fresh insights to be encoded into my idea of ‘Beloved’.

At the centre of this glittering catherine-wheel of a novel are Sethe, her flesh-daughter Denver and her-ghost daughter Beloved. Spinning around these three is Baby Suggs, shamanistic woman of great heart, mother to Sethe’s absent husband, Halle, who worked years of Sundays to buy his beloved mother’s freedom,

Spinning around them is is the incident in the shed of a house on the banks of the Ohio eighteen years before. Here, rather than have her baby daughter returned to the spoilage of a slave’s life, Sethe kills her with a saw.

Towards the edge of catherine-wheel spins Sweet Home, the plantation where Sethe was born, where Baby Suggs worked in the kitchen and where Halle, Paul D and the other ‘Sweet Home men’, worked the land for the apparently benevolent Mr Garner, who kindly allowed Halle to work years of his free Sundays to buy his mother’s freedom.

Further out beyond Sweet Home spins the sea, from where came Sethe’s mother who spoke a language Sethe could not understand, and who ended at the end of a hangman’s rope.

And beyond the sea spins Africa, always Africa.

Time is given little linear respect in this novel: it flashes inwards and outwards, backwards and forwards to allow us a deeper and deeper sense of the interior landscapes not just of Sethe and Baby Suggs, but of Denver and of Paul D, who comes to Ohio to find Sethe; and of old Stamp Paid who rescues slaves on the banks of the Ohio.

The palest, whitest, most glittering light shines on the interior landscape of ‘Beloved’, the aggressive mischievous ghost finally embodied as a girl, ‘who had new skin, lineless and smooth, including the knuckles of her hands.’

The novel inhabits not only light but music, in the layering and counterpointing of word and word and word, and in its incantatory prose rhythms. Buried in there too is the syncopated development of motif, which spreads, divides, then fuses in the artfully artless manner of jazz. Music also lives in the novel in plain sight: Upstairs Beloved was dancing. A little two step, two step, make a new step, slide slide and strut on down.

Already praised for her earlier novels, Morrison changed gear as a writer with ‘Beloved’. She took her sense of the essential music of language to greater heights in her later novel, ‘Jazz’, set in 1920’s Harlem. Then came ‘Paradise’, which Morrison wrote as the final instalment of a trilogy that began with ‘Beloved’. ‘Paradise’ begins with the best first lines, ‘They shoot the white girl first…’ but for me ‘Beloved’ is the best, the first great begetting.

Morrison, a career academic, is a highly7 conscious creator. Straight narrative, plain talk, fancy allegory, elliptical forms, metaphoric language, magic and music are her fingertip tools. In her Nobel Prize speech, she said, ‘The vitality of language lies in its ability to limn the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speakers, readers and writers. Although its poise is sometimes a displacing experience, it is not a substitute for it. It arcs towards the place where meaning may lie.’

Now that ‘Beloved’ is on firmly fixed on curriculum lists we are treated to a wide range of analytical perspectives of the novel and its writer. However, arguments regarding the informing issues of race or of gender seem to me cripplingly reductive. Morrison herself said, in an article in Time Magazine ‘Race is the least reliable information you can have about something. It’s real information, but it tells you next to nothing.’ 

The race under the microscope here is the human race.

And gender? Well the feminist in me finds much to cherish in the closeness, the high definition and elaboration of the female characters: their strengths and their discreet consuming passions; in the elevation here of female sensuality in food and colour, appetite and domestic routine. But the tenderness and acute perception which Morrison also shows Paul D and Stamp Paid, and even the absent Halle, properly includes men in this universe of pain and redemption.

‘Beloved’ shoots out light, life and even hope in all directions, including ours. It’s the best.
Read it!

(NB This article was first published in Mslexia Magazine. They edited out my admonition ‘Read it!’ I have restored it here,)

 

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