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Monthly Archives: June 2012

I would like to think that books, like people, can be extroverts and introverts; if that is the case, Peter Hobbs’ novel The Short Day Dying is definitely an introvert, concerned with an inner life and a man’s private experiences of the world. Published in 2005, it is a very quiet book which faithfully records the thoughts and feelings of the main character, Charles, a young blacksmith and lay-preacher living in a remote coastal area of England in 1870. Not quite a diary, it does have the feeling of a personal journal, recording changes in Charles’ life as he passes through the seasons of a year.

Charles works during the week in the forge and on Sundays he travels across the country to preach at small, almost deserted chapels in the wild country where he lives. He pins up biblical tracts in the hope that they will inspire people, despite the decline in the importance of religion to people’s lives. He also visits the sick and one person in particular becomes very important to him, a young blind girl called Harriet, who is suffering from a serious illness that is never defined.

Charles visits Harriet’s family regularly and begins to look forward to the time he spends with Harriet, talking or just sitting with her while she rests. He is inspired by her religious faith, which he comes to realise is stronger than his own despite all her suffering in life. His visits to her are moments of happiness in his sometimes arduous and wearying life. It is easy to realise how Charles feels about Harriet even though he never says it. Although, as I said, the book is introspective, Charles is still something of a mystery to himself and sometimes the reader can see or sense what Charles would never put into words. The book is full of emotion both expressed and unexpressed.

Reflecting the introverted nature of the book, we see all the characters through the way Charles experiences them and his feelings about them; therefore they are always at a slight distance from us. Charles’ family lives far away from him and although he is always intending to go and see them, pressures of work keep him away. However, he often meets his elderly godfather, Mr Pendray, who always shows him kindness and guides him through difficulties. Mr Pendray has dedicated his life to the church after being converted from a life of alcoholism. Charles knows that because of everything he has experienced, Mr Pendray understands far more than he does. ‘He knew sorrow for things beyond my imagination’. Charles’ childhood friend, James, another preacher in a different part of the country, also visits him and they go for long walks along the clifftops together. James is Charles’ main confidant, even though he keeps his deepest feelings to himself.

Hobbs’ writing about the landscape is very beautiful. It contains wonderful, dramatic visual descriptions and conveys how much the natural world means to Charles. This was something I loved about the book, the way I could imagine the wildness of the moors and the sea. The passage below also shows you the unusual way the book is punctuated, as if to recreate Charles’ speaking or thinking voice.

The farmland fell behind us and the land changed we came onto the cliff and I first saw the sea it were a beautiful thing a fine living cloth spread out to the horizon. I could not believe it were so vast. A deep shifting blue richer than the sky. The smell of salt so keen I could taste it on my tongue. The sight awed me furnished a view which has burned in my memory these years. It felt as though the scene had been waiting for me a long time.

To Charles, the landscape forms part of his religious belief and is a way of viewing God all around him. 

That the trees are brought to breathe by his divinity in them that the very life of us all is that part of his Nature which he has provided us. Men who are impoverished in the spirit and much afflicted by doubt go to search for God in dry books or close themselves off in thick-walled churches as if he hides there well their blessings are few if they cannot see evidence of him in all things.

Charles has a critical side to his character and he complains to himself about people’s lack of religion and sins such as drunkenness. I suppose in this way he is quite unusual as a character in modern fiction. He is less judgemental than his father and grandfather, who were also both preachers, and he can understand why people break the rules of religious observance because he also has the same desires himself. I thought that many of his more hard-hearted feelings towards other people were caused by the depression that afflicts him; as depression sets in, Charles’ attitudes and feelings change and his work inspires him less and less. As the novel is set in the nineteenth century and the feeling is suffered by an extremely private person like Charles, it is never called depression or given any name at all. But the presence of despair in his life is very cleverly suggested through his interactions with other people and, in more lyrical passages, it is beautifully described.

The darkness in my heart is a disc that matches the size of the sun seems to obscure the bright light. It came to me as a friend the darkness to embrace me. Stood by my side and rested an arm across my shoulders as though it knew me.

Darkness in the novel is partly related to the passing of time, which is something that Charles frequently feels anxious about. He is always concerned about the shortness of his life  and making the most of time. I also wondered if the gathering darkness was related to the disappearance of religious faith from the country Charles lives in and the decline of the mines which is causing poverty and weariness among the people.

But they will hollow out the earth until there is no more profit in it and what then. The whole land will be empty the old mines in the West are nearly done with they have reached as deep as they can they have uncovered the tin beneath the copper and dug that too. And it seems they have mined from the spirit to a similar extent they have exhausted the life in it so the chapels are also empty.

I would highly recommend The Short Day Dying. It is a unique and beautifully written novel which memorably describes the thoughts and feelings of the main character and the beauty of the coastal landscape.

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When authors make real historical people into characters in their fiction, the results can be controversial. Even if the author adds a disclaimer that their work is imagined and does not claim to tell the whole truth about Vermeer or Cromwell or Henry James, a fictional image can be just as powerful as a biographical one and add to our collective impression of that historical figure. Personally, I think that a writer has a responsibility when they begin writing about people who actually lived, and the less famous their subject, the greater the responsibility. For example, with so many images and narratives of Virginia Woolf in existence, people will not take Michael Cunningham’s portrait of her in The Hours to be the definitive truth. I think most people piece together their ideas of historical figures from many different sources, rejecting fragments that don’t fit with the rest and threaten to disturb the whole. But what if the character imagined is not Virginia Woolf but an obscure young woman who in 1818 boarded a ship from the Scottish Highlands with her father and brothers to make a new life in North America? Someone who died nearly 200 years ago has no one to defend her and if an author happens to explore her life and make it into fiction, this is probably the only representation she will ever have for us in the 21st century.

In The View from Castle Rock, the acclaimed Canadian short story writer Alice Munro turns her own life and the lives of her ancestors into fiction. She explains in the foreword that the book grew out of the research she carried out into her mother’s side of the family, who originally came from Scotland, and then became combined with a set of autobiographical stories she was also writing at the time, stories ‘in which I was doing something closer to what a memoir does – exploring a life, my own life, but not in an austere or rigorously factual way.’ The stories in this volume move forwards through time (although always reminding us that they are being imagined or researched by Munro in the present), beginning with her visit to the Ettrick Valley in Scotland, the home of ancestors who themselves lived obscure lives but were connected to famous figures such as James Hogg and Sir Walter Scott, and ending with a story based on the author’s own life in the present but very much concerned with mortality, past generations and the history of her local area, from the geological history of the landscape to the recent history of churches and crypts.

Not everyone likes books that combine fact and fiction in this way, and I’m not completely sure what I think. Sometimes, while reading, I wondered how much was true and how much invented; sometimes I just became immersed in the stories, not caring whether they were true or not. This was especially the case in the title story, which was my favourite and to me the most memorable. This story is about the sea voyage of an elderly father and his sons and daughter, who are all emigrating together from Scotland to Canada in the early 1800s. One son, Andrew, is married and his wife, Agnes, gives birth on board ship; Mary, the daughter, is small, shy, plain and overlooked, and finds her greatest joy in looking after Agnes’ children; the younger son, Walter, begins writing a journal about the voyage and makes friends with a young consumptive girl who is travelling with her wealthy father.

In this story, Munro invents the thoughts, feelings and dialogue of these people, who all really lived and whose gravestones can still be found in a churchyard in Canada. That raises the question I mentioned earlier, whether there is something disturbing about giving made-up voices to people who may have been very different in reality. However, Munro does use facts discovered in her research too, along with, most interestingly, the real journal of the sea voyage that Walter kept and letters written by the father, James. There is a clear dividing line between fact and fiction, because at this distance in time the characters and their feelings cannot be known and must have been invented, but they are imagined, as Munro puts it, ‘always within the outlines of a true narrative’. In this story, history and fiction stay in their own categories, but their juxtaposition has a kind of magic power, truly managing to convey the immigrants’ vulnerability and the wonders of their journey, the risks they were taking by leaving their old lives behind.

In the later stories, the ones about Alice Munro’s own life, the line between fact and fiction is less clear and I found myself wondering more often which elements were autobiographical. The first-person narrator remained recognisable throughout, rebellious and unconventional, awkward, easily embarrassed but sometimes arrogant, not at home in the place she grew up. Her ambitious mother who found the happiest time of her life selling furs in a grand hotel, her quieter father who turned to writing later in life, and her brash and tactless stepmother are also essentially the same in all the stories, and I think this is where the truth of the book lies, so that it doesn’t matter so much if the other characters and incidents are invented. Writing honestly about people who were so close to the author is much more dangerous than writing about long-dead ancestors. In a way, I think it’s natural for the reader to want to know whether what is written is true, even if only one person’s subjective truth. But Munro insists that these stories are fiction: ‘I put myself in the center and wrote about that self, as searchingly as I could. But the figures around this self took on their own life and color and did things they had not done in reality.’

I believe a writer’s imagination cannot be constrained and although it might begin with facts, it soon travels far away into a world of fiction that has a different kind of truth. But I still feel that a writer has a responsibility to people who actually existed and had their own secret lives that nobody can ever know about. I wonder how much a writer can speak for others who lived long ago.