It’s been a long time since I attended a literary festival in person rather than online. Four of us from my book club went along yesterday evening to the headline event of Marlborough Literature Festival. Marlborough is a pleasant market town in Wiltshire about 40 minutes from Newbury, and I’d like to get back to it sometime soon when things are open so I can explore its secondhand and plastic-free shops.
Patrick Gale closed the festival by speaking about his new novel (his 17th), Mother’s Boy. I knew it was a historical novel that covered the Second World War, but I had no idea that it was based on a real person, poet Charles Causley. With Andrew Motion, Gale is a patron of the Charles Causley Trust, which runs an annual poetry competition for children. I hadn’t heard of Causley, but Gale and some members of the audience recall memorizing his poems in school – like Roald Dahl’s, they can have a wicked sense of humour. Causley also wrote in the style of traditional ballads; my husband knows a version of one on a folk album.
Gale called Causley the “least sexy” of the war poets. He was from Launceston, Cornwall and left school at age 15, joining the Navy and later working as a schoolteacher for many years. He lived with his widowed mother and, if you believe the legend, died a virgin. However, Gale unearthed evidence that Causley was in fact a closeted homosexual and had sexual encounters with men during the war. He experienced survivor’s guilt because he escaped his ship’s explosion while he had an on-shore posting so that he could sit his exams.
Equally important to the novel is Causley’s mother, Laura, who grew up in extreme poverty and, after her husband’s death from TB, raised Charles in a slum on a laundress’ salary, even managing to buy him a piano. Launceston was decimated by the two world wars, and essentially colonized by the segregated U.S. Army. Gale made up a Black character named Amos, but gave him a horrific real-life story. Laura would have met Black soldiers and, later, German POWs through her working-class church.
Gale acknowledged that he had to make up more of Laura’s story, relying only on the information about her in Causley’s tiny appointment diaries. In response to an audience question, he said he thinks Causley would be “utterly appalled” at the existence of this novel because he was an intensely private person, but that he’s salved his conscience with the fact that the book is driving people back to Causley’s poems. He wrote this as a novel rather than a biography because he tends to “overempathize” with characters, and likes to go “behind the bedroom door,” as he put it – indeed, one (non-graphic) scene he read was of Charles’s conception, while the other was about Charles learning to read at age five and enjoying his father’s company though he knew he was ill.
Mother’s Boy is most like A Place Called Winter from his oeuvre, Gale remarked, in that it’s historical fiction based on real people – in that earlier case, his own relatives. Gale’s father was the governor of Wandsworth Prison and his mother the daughter of the governor of Liverpool Prison (where he oversaw many hangings). In fact, he’s now at work on a sequel to A Place Called Winter, about his grandparents and parents, and researching from letters.
I was impressed with Gale’s delivery: he spoke engagingly for 45 minutes about the book and its context, peppering in readings and recitations, with no interviewer to prompt him. It was clearly a practiced lecture, but he had no notes and spoke warmly and as if off the cuff.
Are any of these poem titles familiar to you? These were the ones mentioned during last night’s event. (You can listen to Causley reading some of them in his eighties – with his large cat purring in the background – on the Poetry Archive site I linked to above.)
- “Timothy Winters”
- “Rattler Morgan”
- “Eden Rock”
- “The Ballad of a Bread Man”
- “Angel Hill”
I have a copy of Mother’s Boy on hold at the library for me to pick up tomorrow, and we fancy reading A Place Called Winter for book club soon – his Notes from an Exhibition was one of our all-time favourites that we’ve read together.
Are you a Patrick Gale fan? Have you been able to attend any literary events recently?
I don’t think I realized how serious the Russian invasion of Ukraine was until I heard a neighbour who is in the Royal Navy speak of it in the same breath as 9/11.
It is so hard to predict the end game. Wars can last years, even decades, and a situation like this could draw many more countries in. Like with Covid, there could be much longer term effects than we’re currently expecting.
I attended a candlelit vigil for Ukraine in the town square on Friday.
I donated to the Disasters Emergency Committee’s Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal at church yesterday morning, and will donate more. (Those in other countries might choose to send money through Doctors Without Borders, the Red Cross, or UNICEF.)
And I was prompted by a friend’s post to assemble this “Solidarity Stack” on Instagram over the weekend:
But I still feel like I have done so little.
I can hardly bear to keep up with the news; we don’t have a television or get a newspaper and I never listen to the radio, but I do see the headlines through my Facebook and Twitter feeds. Some heartening stories, but mostly horrible ones.
I wish I knew more about Ukraine. The only books I can think of that I’ve read by Ukrainians and Ukrainian Americans are Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky, Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov*, and My Dead Parents by Anya Yurchyshyn. There is a Ukraine setting to The Summer Guest by Alison Anderson, and Henry Marsh goes on medical missions to Ukraine in Do No Harm. Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer is about his Ukrainian Jewish heritage (as is his mother Esther’s I Want You to Know We’re Still Here); The Reason Why by Cecil Woodham-Smith and The Rose of Sebastopol by Katharine McMahon are about the Crimean War.
Over the past couple of weeks a number of Ukrainian reading lists have come out, like this one from Book Riot. Ron Charles (of the Washington Post) also put me onto I Will Die in a Foreign Land by Kalani Pickhart, which is about the 2014 revolution in Ukraine (when Putin tried to annex the Crimea). A portion of her proceeds will be donated to the Ukrainian Red Cross.
*Apparently on a most wanted list for his vocal opposition to Putin; his work has been banned in Russia since 2014.
Any other thoughts on what we can do to help, understand, and work for the good?
It’s the fourth annual Margaret Atwood Reading Month (#MARM), hosted by Canadian blogger extraordinaire Marcie of Buried in Print. In previous years, I’ve read Surfacing and The Edible Woman, The Robber Bride and Moral Disorder, and Wilderness Tips. This year Laila at Big Reading Life and I did a buddy reread of The Blind Assassin, which was historically my favourite Atwood novel. I’d picked up a free paperback the last time I was at The Book Thing of Baltimore. Below are some quick thoughts based on what I shared with Laila as I was reading.
The Blind Assassin (2000)
Winner of the Booker Prize and Hammett Prize; shortlisted for the Orange Prize
I must have first read this about 13 years ago. The only thing I remembered before I started my reread was that there is a science fiction book-within-the-book. I couldn’t recall anything else about the setup before I read in the blurb about the suspicious circumstances of Laura’s death in 1945. Indeed, the opening line, which deserves to be famous, is “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.”
I always love novels about sisters, and Iris is a terrific narrator. Now a cantankerous elderly woman, she takes us back through her family history: her father’s button factory and his clashes with organizing workers, her mother’s early death, and her enduring relationship with their housekeeper, Reenie. Iris and Laura met a young man named Alex Thomas, a war orphan with radical views, at the factory’s Labour Day picnic, and it was clear early on that Laura was smitten, while Iris went on to marry Richard Griffen, a nouveau riche industrialist.
Interspersed with Iris’s recollections are newspaper articles that give a sense that the Chase family might be cursed, and excerpts from The Blind Assassin, Laura’s posthumously published novel. Daring for its time in terms of both explicit content and literary form (e.g., no speech marks), it has a storyline rather similar to 1984, with an upper-crust woman having trysts with a working-class man in his squalid lodgings. During their time snatched together, he also tells her a story inspired by the pulp sci-fi of the time. I was less engaged by the story-within-the-story(-within-the-story) this time around compared to Iris’s current life and flashbacks.
In the back of my mind, I had a vague notion that there was a twist coming, and in my impatience to see if I was right I ended up skimming much of the second half of the novel. My hunch was proven correct, but I was disappointed with myself that I wasn’t able to enjoy the journey more a second time around. Overall, this didn’t wow me on a reread, but then again, I am less dazzled by literary “tricks” these days. At the sentence level, however, the writing was fantastic, including descriptions of places, seasons and characters’ psychology. It’s intriguing to think about whether we can ever truly know Laura given Iris’s guardianship of her literary legacy.
If you haven’t read this before, find a time when you can give it your full attention and sink right in. It’s so wise on family secrets and the workings of memory and celebrity, and the weaving in of storylines in preparation for the big reveal is masterful.
Some favourite passages:
“What fabrications they are, mothers. Scarecrows, wax dolls for us to stick pins into, crude diagrams. We deny them an existence of their own, we make them up to suit ourselves – our own hungers, our own wishes, our own deficiencies.”
“Beginnings are sudden, but also insidious. They creep up on you sideways, they keep to the shadows, they lurk unrecognized. Then, later, they spring.”
“The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it. Impossible, of course.”
My original rating (c. 2008):
My rating now:
What to read for #MARM next year, I wonder??
In general, I have been struggling mightily with doorstoppers this year. I just don’t seem to have the necessary concentration, so Novellas in November has been a boon. I’ve been battling with Ruth Ozeki’s latest novel for months, and another attempted buddy read of 460 pages has also gone by the wayside. I’ll write a bit more on this for #LoveYourLibrary on Monday, including a couple of recent DNFs. The Blind Assassin was only my third successful doorstopper of the year so far. After The Absolute Book, the other one was:
The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles
In Towles’ third novel – a big, old-fashioned dose of Americana – brothers and pals set out from Nebraska on road and rail adventures to find a fortune in 1950s New York. The book features some fantastic characters. Precocious Billy steals every scene he appears in. Duchess is a delightfully flamboyant bounder, peppering his speech with malapropisms and Shakespeare quotes. However, Emmett is a dull protagonist, and it’s disappointing that Sally, one of just two main female characters, plays such a minor role. A danger with an episodic narrative is that random events and encounters pile up but don’t do much to further the plot. At nearly 200 pages in, I realized little of consequence had happened yet. A long road, then, with some ups and downs along the way, but Towles’ fans will certainly want to sign up for the ride.
With thanks to Hutchinson for the free copy for review.