Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Literary Season

It does seem very much like the literary season, with festivals to the left and right of us, the Booker announcement next Tuesday, and Doris Lessing winning the Nobel. Last, first. Its been heartening to see so much praise for Lessing, from the literary community mostly. As is often the case with literature you'll rarely hear a politician's voice. Yet is strange isn't it? Literature remains one of our greatest assets - as well as an important strand of the economy. Lessing was a writer I first encountered at university where we covered "The Golden Notebook" as part of our Women's Literature course, and "Memoirs of a Survivor" as part of our contemporary literature class. The latter class was notable for the mediocre novels on it (David Lodge's "How Far Can You Go", Ballard's "Empire of the Sun", Murdoch's "Under the Net), and then, to read "Memoirs of a Survivor" was to be transported somewhere else. I was amazed to find such an imaginative work amongst English writing. Its still a favourite, though I doubt it would be to everyone's taste. When people talk of Lessing deciding to write sci-fi, they seem to forget novels such as this which use some of the techniques of imaginative fiction, and use them in a modern way, but aren't in any way space opera. Yet it was always there, this imagination, and its why "The Golden Notebook" endures - a long book, but with a structure that allowed it to cover many different things. But just as labelling some of her work science fiction, labelling her as a political writer is both right and wrong. The brilliant "The Good Terrorist" dissects the left of the early 80s, through the "good terrorist" of the title. Through it she exposes some of the contradictions of the left, then and before - its sexism, its mysoginism, for instance - or, the way that the "middle class" left often had such a contempt for the ordinary people it was trying to liberate. Yet Lessing is not a polemicist; like Atwood, I think she is more interested in the observation of interesting things, people and stories, and looking for a method in which to do that better. Her books will continue to be read and studied; and to form a formidable body of work that covering half a century or more of writing will take more than a Nobel prize to deconstruct.

At yesterday's Manchester Literature Festival "double header" at Whitworth Art Gallery, Roddy Doyle praised Lessing, when he was asked what he read (fiction, contemporary and the classics was the general answer). It was the first time I'd heard him read, but it was wonderfully entertaining performance. His new book - of short stories that he'd written over 8 years for a Dublin based multi-cultural newspaper, in small episodes - seems to be a perfect introduction to his writing, and a chance for him to engage more fully with the contemporary reality of Ireland - always his subject, but as he said, one that had changed considerably in the last 20 years. Veterans of Manchester Literary events await the "mad" question that inevitably occurs towards the fag end of the evening - but poor Roddy got it from the first questioner. "I really liked the story," the woman intoned, poshly, "except the ending." He was incredibly gracious in response to this, but is probably still shaking his head at it, in a bar somewhere.

I've read Doyle, though I'm not someone who reads all his books, but I've never read either Maggie O'Farrell or Booker listed Anne Enright. Although they both read very well to a packed room, I got a sense they're not my kind of books. Anne's novel "The Gathering" is about a large dysfunctional Irish family, after bad news concerning one of them, and reading it an hour after hearing Doyle, you were struck by both the similarities and differences. She read it wonderfully, yet is sounds a despairing tale, and moreover, the narrator's hatred for her own mother - her anger - was a little too raw for my tastes. In the questions at the end, there was a point made that we are more uncomfortable when a woman is angry - thinking her unstable - than a man - thinking him strong. There's an element of this, I guess, yet, it seemed about "intent." Enright seems to be wanting to explore that anger, get to the bottom of what caused it, whereas perhaps male anger always has consequences rather than causes, and that it is the consequences that matter to the writer in those cases. Perhaps the difference between an interior and exterior novel. O'Farrell's novel was about secrets as well, about incarceration, lies and families. I came out a little exhausted, thinking, is this a male/female thing or something else? I could imagine having written the Doyle story, but the dark depressing experiences of these two books, where do they come from - and why were the writers attracted to the stories, or the readers attracted to the novels? "The Golden Notebook" and "Memoirs of a Survivor" are both partly about breakdown and mental illness, but Lessing found ways of exposing those themes that still seems contemporary. I'm wondering if a readership primed by Princess Diana's public interviews, and memoirs like David Peltzer, needs its suffering upfront, raw, on the page from the start - however accomplished (and both readers seemed accomplished), the writing is that describes it.

After the readings I walked home, since it was the Eid festival and Rusholme was inpassable, a sign of our contemporary reality, that rarely finds its way into fiction. I once included the local Mela in a short story, that in itself had nothing to do with multiculturalism, yet was utterly aware of the city in which it takes place. Doyle made the point that this story, the first he wrote - was about an Irish family and how they react to a stranger in their midst - but later, he began to write equally about the experience of the arrivees themselves.

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