Tag Archives: Virginia Woolf

Reader Confessions

BOOK BLOKE (@bloke_book) started this ‘Reader Confessions’ and I was tagged by Andy Martin:

1. Have you ever damaged a book?

Never on purpose. Some people consider this a crime, but I enjoy breaking the spines of books; I believe it’s the only way to make them feel read. I am highly suspicious of people who don’t.

2. Have you ever damaged a borrowed book?

Not that I recall. And I never break the spines of other people’s books, even if I suffer while reading them gently without ever properly opening and consuming them as they should be. God, I sound awful, don’t I?

3. How long does it take you to read a book?

Depends on the book. I have been taking my time with Don Quixote for about two years now. I do not want it to end, so it is a few pages at a time every few days or even weeks. I have been savouring Dracula for a few weeks now. Brilliant. I also took my time with Virginia Woolf’s diaries. A Jack Reacher doesn’t last long despite its lengths. Most other books two to four days.

4. Books you haven’t finished?

Recipes for Love and Murder. No comment. (I might lose a Twitter follower, or two, with this answer.)

5. Hyped/Popular books you didn’t like?

I usually stay away from them, and if I do pick one up, it has to come highly recommended by someone I trust as a reader.

6. Is there a book you wouldn’t tell anyone you were reading?

No. I am never ashamed of reading books.

7. How many books do you own?

Close to 20 000, still counting. I am the custodian of André’s magnificent collection.

8. Are you a fast/slow reader?

Fast, unless slow is required.

9. Do you like to buddy read?

I am not sure I want to know what this means…

10. Do you read better in your head/out loud?

Only in my head. I love being read to, something I miss terribly from the time I had with André.

11. If you were only allowed to own one book, what would it be and why?

An Instant in the Wind by my late husband, André Brink. I have re-read it several times and every time it only gets better. It would always remind me of the love of my life.

Well, that’s it and now I have to tag some people so here goes.
I tag: Sally Partridge, Melissa Volker, Pamela Power.

Books

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Review: The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson

WintersonJeanette Winterson is one of my favourite writers of fiction and non-fiction. Her recent memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal (2011) was a revelation. I was introduced to her work at university with the by now classic novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985). Her Lighthousekeeping (2004) is one of the most moving love stories I have ever read. Among many texts, it echoes Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. The main character Silver reappears in other Winterson novels. As does the line: “Tell me a story.” Winterson is known for her retellings of myths and legends, her writing is rich in intertextuality. I loved her modern rendering of the Atlas myth, Weight (2005).

The Gap of Time, Winterson’s latest novel, is also a cover version of a famous classic, no other than Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. It is the first book in a series launched in October last year which aims to reimagine Shakespearean works for our generation. Howard Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name was published last month. Upcoming titles include such promising treats as Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood’s take on The Tempest, or Gillian Flynn’s version of Hamlet.

One does not have to be a Shakespeare buff to enjoy The Gap of Time. For those unfamiliar with The Winter’s Tale, the original is summarised in the beginning of the book. But Winterson’s brilliant interpretation is self-reliant and can be read independently.

“The story has to start somewhere”, but not necessarily at the beginning. The Gap of Time begins in the middle: Shep, a jazz bar owner, and his son Clo witness a murder. At the same time, they discover a little girl “as light as a star” in a baby hatch of a hospital nearby. Because the child reawakens Shep’s belief in love, which he lost when his beloved wife died of cancer, he decides to adopt her.

The story moves back in time to when the ruthless businessman Leo accuses his wife pregnant wife MiMi of having an affair with their best friend Xeno, and of carrying his child. Although both deny the accusation vehemently, Leo attempts to kill Xeno and refuses to acknowledge his daughter when she is born. His rampant jealousy results in a tragedy which leaves no one unscathed.

Years later, fate leads two young people to fall into love, but their respective family histories might ruin their chance at happiness. With great emotional and psychological depth, Winterson’s tale examines the notions of family and what it means to love, “to know something worth knowing, wild and unlikely and against every rote.” She exposes the foolishness of taking love for granted and allowing chances at redemption to slip us by.

As Winterson writes in the end, the reason Shakespeare endures is because stories of revenge, tragedy and forgiveness are universal. This superb twenty-first century retelling speaks straight to our contemporary, post-Freudian consciousness and touches our ancient hearts which continue longing for the recognition of the magic they are capable of.

The Gap of Time

by Jeanette Winterson

Hogarth Shakespeare, 2015

Review first published in the Cape Times, 1 April 2016.

 

Literary Couples: Alex Smith and Andrew Salomon

This is the first in a series of posts I would like to devote to Literary Couples. Think Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley, Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf, or Siri Hustvedt and Paul Auster.

I would like to begin, however, locally and very much in the present with two dear friends: Alex Smith and Andrew Salomon.

Alex, Andrew and their son Elias

Alex, Andrew and their son Elias


Photo: RHS

Alex Smith is the author of Algeria’s Way, Four Drunk Beauties, Agency Blue and Drinking from the Dragon’s Well. Her writing has been short-listed for the SA Pen Literary Award and the Cain Prize for African writing, and has won a Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature and a Nielsen Booksellers’ Choice Award. She lives in Cape Town with her partner, their book-loving baby boy and their dogs. Her latest novel is Devilskein & Dearlove.

Andrew Salomon is the author of a young adult novel, The Chrysalis, and his short stories have appeared in several journals and collections. He received a PEN/ Studzinski Literary Award for African Fiction in 2009 and was shortlisted for the 2011 Terry Pratchett First Novel Award. He lives in Cape Town, but his work as an archaeologist has taken him all over southern Africa and a few places beyond. Tokoloshe Song is his first novel for adults.

Alex and Andrew allowed me to ask them some questions:

Please describe your partner’s creative process.
Andrew: Alex gets an idea – whether it be a character or a situation, or something else – and she writes away. She has an amazing ability to get the words down, to just write thousands of words at a time. Just a few months after our son was born she had to write three novellas within one month, and she did.

Alex: I think we are both a bit secretive about new ideas – or maybe I just am! I often see Andrew typing up notes – fragments of things he has seen or words that have intrigued him – and I’ll come across files on our shared desktop (laptop that is) with extraordinary file names; I don’t open them, but when I inquire, it always turns out that the file is a page of these notes, which could for example be graffiti he has spotted on his way home in the train. So he hoards ideas, that’s probably the beginning of his ‘creative process’. Then he takes the plunge and starts writing a new novel or story. To be honest we have never discussed anything like our ‘creative processes’ so I have no idea what happens after that. I do know that he likes to get a first draft done in a focused period of time – so during that time he becomes quite single-minded about the task of writing; he’ll set himself a daily word target, that sort of thing. I also know that when it comes to editing, he is meticulous, far more so than I am – I always feel like a bit of a lazy slut in comparison to him when it comes to editing.

Are you each other’s first readers?
Andrew: Definitely, I know I can count on Alex to be truthful in her assessment, but also kind in the way she delivers it.

What is your favourite piece written by your partner?
Andrew: Alex’s latest novel, Devilskein and Dearlove is a wonderful read, and I am also a big fan of the book that came from her experiences living and working in China, Drinking from The Dragon’s Well – it’s a book that depicts her experiences very truthfully and that also paints an intriguing picture of a place caught in extremely rapid change, so rapid that now it could probably serve as an historical snapshot.

What is the best and worst aspect of sharing a life with another writer?
Alex: Well, I’m not really one to dwell on negatives, but if I must then probably the worst thing is that you have to be really thick-skinned as a writer because it entails all manner of disappointments – from awards you are shortlisted for but do not win to flat out rejections on various projects. So when you share a life with another writer, you experience those slings and arrows in duplicate – those aimed at yourself and those experienced by your partner. For me the best thing is just having somebody very close who loves books, loves stories, gets excited by possible plots and characters and even possible names, and who also really understands what this strange business of writing is like, both its wonders and its realities – small things like knowing what editing actually is (it’s interesting how many non-writers imagine that novels fall out of the heads of their authors in pristine condition and all ready for the typesetter).

Andrew: The best aspect is that you share your life with someone who understands the deep desire to write, to tell a story. So there’s never any explaining necessary about the need for time and space to do this, and we support each other in creating that time and place.
I’m not sure there really is a ‘worst’ aspect but Alex has an uncanny ability to misplace bookmarks, so she keeps borrowing mine, and I have a tendency to use bookmarks that usually have some kind of sentimental meaning to me, which I get to keep for only a short time until they get sent to the secret place of bookmark-no-return. Also, both of us being book-lovers, when we moved in together, our already-substantial book collections got combined into a giant collection and now we seriously need a room just for books, but there’s no chance of that in our postage stamp of a house!

D&DTokoloshe SongYou can win a copy of Alex’s and Andrew’s latest titles in my BOOK GIVEAWAY.

Book mark: The Dig by Cynan Jones

The Dig_book markCynan Jones is a name to remember. The Dig is his fourth novel. It is an astounding piece of writing. Reading Jones one is reminded of the greats of English-language literature – Hemingway, Steinbeck or Virginia Woolf come to mind, each for different reasons. But Jones has a voice all his own. His prose is pure muscle and yet it conveys the most delicate of impressions and emotions. The Dig encompasses the best and worst of humanity. It tells the story of two men: a grieving Welsh sheep farmer and a brutal hunter involved in the illegal blood sport of badger baiting. The novel does not shy away from the horror of cruelty against animals, nor those moments which are unknowable, just before a life is extinguished. Yet it is most haunting when capturing what remains unsaid, as nature and life continue in the landscape of the human heart.

The Dig
by Cynan Jones
Granta, 2014

An edited version of this book mark was first published in the Cape Times on 5 December 2014.

Review: Divided Lives – Dreams of a Mother and Daughter by Lyndall Gordon

Divided LivesOn 26 November 2012, Time published this tiny obituary: “DIED Valerie Eliot, 86, who married TS Eliot in the last years of the great poet’s life; she edited an edition of his epic The Waste Land that included annotations by Ezra Pound.” Not even three dozen words to sum up the life of a woman who was infinitely more than just an editor of her famous husband’s most famous work. When they married towards the end of his life, “Eliot at last found himself ready for forgiveness. Horror, gloom, and penitence came to an end with his discovery of the unconditional love of a young woman,” writes Lyndall Gordon in TS Eliot: An Imperfect Life (1998).

In her biography of Eliot, Gordon retraces the poet’s insatiable search for perfection and his troubled relationships with the women who accompanied him on his quest: “His passion for immortality was so commanding that it allowed him to reject each of these women with a firmness that shattered their lives.” The exception was his second wife, Valerie, who despite being his junior by nearly four decades was the one who bestowed grace upon the final years of his life. Gordon’s biography emphasises the profound change Valerie’s love brought to Eliot in the light of all his previous precarious commitments.

In her biography Henry James: His Women and His Art (1998, revised edition 2012), Gordon sums up the distinguished writer’s ability to explore “the inward life: the unvoiced exchange and the drama of hidden motives … his skills, as well as a power, beyond that of any other man, to plumb the unknown potentialities of women”. James never openly acknowledged the influence such strong, independent women as the American writer Constance Fenimore Woolson had on his writing life and his heroines, but it was immeasurable, as Gordon’s biography shows. While in Venice last year, I was reminded of a striking scene she describes in the book: Henry James helplessly trying to drown Fenimore’s black dresses in one of the lagoons a few weeks after her death. Like balloons the dresses kept surfacing…

Continue reading: Review of Divided Lives: Dreams of a Mother and Daughter by Lyndall Gordon

Published by Virago Press, 2014

Book mark: Divided Lives – Dreams of a Mother and Daughter by Lyndall Gordon

Divided Lives_book markDivided LivesWith their profound insight and stylistic elegance Lyndall Gordon’s biographies of such renowned authors as Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, or Emily Dickinson have been enriching the biographical genre for decades. She is also the author of one previous memoir, Shared Lives (1992), chronicling the fates of three women she grew up with. In Divided Lives, Gordon shines a light on another unique woman in her life, her mother, and their remarkable bond which shaped both their lives. From early on, Gordon was invited to be her mother’s confidant, to take part in her inner world of literary pursuits and hidden passions. More of a sister or a close friend than a daughter, Gordon witnessed her mother’s struggles with illness, lack of opportunities and recognition. All the while she continued the search for her own voice, trying to navigate the path through the wonders and challenges of childhood and womanhood.

Divided Lives: Dreams of a Mother and Daughter
by Lyndall Gordon
Virago, 2014

An edited version of this book mark was published in the Cape Times on 15 August 2014. My full-length review of this title is to follow soon.

Wednesday

When I get a little moneyEver since the summer of 1993, I’ve had this thing about Wednesdays. Special things used to happen to me on Wednesdays. But when I came to live in Cape Town, for a while Wednesday became my least-favourite day of the week. Fortunately, routines can change and miracles do happen. About two years ago, Wednesday reverted to being an ordinary day like any other. But yesterday, Wednesday hit again with the full force of all its magic and I was reminded of kisses, falling stars, the Baltic Sea, literary lectures, and the colour blue. Yes magic.

Most of my days centre on books, but yesterday brought with it an avalanche of bookish delights.

Beijing OperaRecently, I read a book which mentioned a dim sum restaurant in Cape Town with the glorious name Beijing Opera. I discovered my love of dim sum during a trip to China in 2008. It was soon afterwards that I met Alex Smith and read her wonderful account of travels in Asia, Drinking from the Dragon’s Well. She loves dim sum and tea as much as I do, so it was a no-brainer whom to invite to go with me on an exploration of Beijing Opera. We celebrated the recent publication of her latest YA novel, Devilskien & Dearlove, with some delicious gao, bao, and pu-erh tea.

I returned home already smiling to the fantastic news that one of my all-time favourite authors was longlisted for the Man Booker with a novel which I adore: Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World.

In the evening, on my way to Alex’s reading at Clarke’s Bookshop in Longstreet where Devilskien & Dearlove is set, I stopped at two of my other regular hunting grounds, the Protea Bookshop in Rondebosch and the Book Lounge, to pick up three books that have been waiting for me. I am struggling to finish Stephen King’s The Shining (I was expecting more creepiness; as it is, the only thing that creeps up on me on nearly every page is the word ‘overindulgent’), but I do not want to give up on him just yet, so I ordered the one book apparently every beginning writer should read: On Writing. I believe in second chances, and staying away from creepy hotels.

Divided LivesThe other two books were Astra Taylor’s The People’s Platform and Lyndall Gordon’s Divided Lives: Dreams of a Mother and Daughter. I have read all books written by Gordon. Her biographies of writers – Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Brontë, T.S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, and Mary Wollstonecraft – are simply brilliant. I don’t know how I would have survived many periods of doubt in the last few years without these insightful, empathetic, passionate, beautifully written books on lives of writing. Divided Lives (what a cover!) is different, because it is a memoir. I’ve been following its reception in the UK and have a feeling that I am in for a magical treat.

I found out about Astra Taylor’s The People’s Platform through the New York Times. I have been reading books about the internet for years in order to be able to participate more consciously in its evolution, i.e. to use it wisely instead of being stupidly abused by it. Not sure that I am succeeding, but in the words of Manuel (Fawlty Towers): “I learn, I learn!” Perhaps now that I have joined twitter I need the books more than ever, but so far, my experience with the service has been quite positive. I treat it like a radio station: I tune in and out when I feel like it. Occasionally, I tweet. I follow God and Jennifer Lopez, so I feel in safe hands. (I might even make it to Facebook one day – in the words of my compatriot Conrad: “The horror! The horror!”)

Alex with son Elias after her reading at Clarke's

Alex with son Elias after her reading at Clarke’s

So: There I was at Clarke’s Bookshop, still smiling from the dim sum lunch and the longlist announcement, with a handbag full of books I couldn’t wait to get into bed with, listening to Alex’s beautiful reading voice, surrounded by shelves and shelves of exquisite second-hand books, then chatting to friends and other book lovers about Stephen King and literary podcasts, when…DDDRUM RRROLL…I spotted a copy of Nadine Gordimer’s Face to Face (1949), the first book she ever published. And because my handbag was stuffed with only three books, and because after the shopping spree I was on the verge of being completely broke again (“When I get a little money…”), I bought it, of course.

I flew home on the wings of a booklover’s happiness and arrived to the news of winning a copy of Jane Austen by David Nokes in the Great Faber Finds Summer Reads Giveaway:

“We are about to shut up Finds Towers for the summer, pack a bag full of odd-sized vintage paperbacks and catch a plane to somewhere sunlit and contemplative. In case you haven’t got your own bag packed yet we can, perhaps, make it all a bit easier for you. We are giving away a copy of each of the following thirty (that’s 30) superior Faber Finds titles.”

What a way to end a Wednesday!

How did I find out about the giveaway?
On twitter.

I’m off with my own bag full of odd-sized books in search of a glass of sherry and a fireplace…

Happy reading everyone!
And have a great Thursday. (It’s Set Menu Dinner Club time at Beijing Opera tonight.)