Monday, November 19, 2012

'Faction'? No,  Biographical Fiction.

The two novels that gave me the idea of writing a novel about Edward Thomas's last years were  these:
David Lodge, in his 'The Year of Henry James', wrote about the 'co-incidence  waiting to happen' - that he and Colm Toibin were writing their novels at the same time. (The same thing has happened to some extent now with Edward Thomas of course, but not, I hope, in fiction.)
Lodge puts forward his thoughts about the James coincidence in 'The Year..' but more interesting to me is his discussion about the current  popularity of biographical novels, especially as applied to the lives of writers:
'It could be taken as a symptom of a declining faith or loss of confidence in the power of purely fictional narrative in a culture where we are bombarded from every direction with formal narrative  in the form of 'news'. It could be regarded as a characteristic form of post-modernism - incorporating the art of the past in its own processes through reinterpretation and stylistic pastiche. It could be seen as a sign of decadence and exhaustion in contemporary writing, or as a positive and ingenious way of coping with the 'anxiety of influence.'
After commenting  that the same has happened in drama he goes on:
'In short, the  biographical-novel-about-a-writer has acquired a new status  and a prominence as a subgenre of literary fiction.'
That was published in 2006, when I was just getting under way myself. His sections on acknowledging sources, the 'voice' and on seamlessly joining facts and fiction are good and I will look at them in the next blog.
Since then there have been many many more - notably for me 'Arthur and George' by Julian Barnes. I had an opportunity to talk to him and rather wasted it by chatting to him about settings - it is Staffordshire based and one scene is set in the building which was an annexe to my (and Carol Anne Duffy's)old  school.  He did tell me that the genesis of the idea -  the Dreyfus case - came to him on a visit to Germany.

There is a 'novel'- not well received, about Frost too. This is the blurb:
'Through the revelatory voice of fiction, Brian Hall gives us an artist toughened by tragedy, whose intimacy with death gave life to his poetry-for him, the preeminent symbol of man's form-giving power. This is the exquisitely rendered portrait of one man's rages, guilt, generosity, and defiant persistence-as much a fictional masterwork as it is a meditation on greatness.'

Recent additions to the genre, if it is one.

'The Great Lover', Jill Dawson's 2009 novel about Rupert Brooke in Grantchester - very speculative, entertaining.

Another - my former tutor on Oxford's creative writing Diploma course, novelist Clare Morgan, who has  Nietzsche,Virginia Woolf, and some modern characters woven together in her gripping, 'A Book for All and None.'

Then there is  Jude Morgan who is prolific in this field  - the Byron trilogy, the Brontes - A Taste of Sorrow - I've read the Byrons and learned a lot, but have yet to read the Brontes. And now - what courage! Shakespeare! Surely that is the ultimate challenge. It's very well reviewed so I've ordered it:

The Secret Life of William Shakespeare.

'In this confident and accomplished fictional rendering of Shakespeare's life, Morgan makes a virtue of how little we know for certain about the playright. Not only does the paucity of fact open up spaces in which the novelist can operate with greater freedom, but Morgan has turned our lack of knowledge into a quality of unknowableness in his protagonist .'   (Jane Housham) That sounds excellent.

Life After Death

Andrew Motion on Keats, 'The Invention of Dr Cake' and on Edward Thomas in the collection 'Interrupted lives'  - made up a post-mortem future for them so is in a sense pure fiction. Reading the Edward Thomas is a very disorientating business, all well known facts and then suddenly:

'At 7.36 a shell landed nearby, just as he was standing to fill his clay pipe. The blast poured over him, sqeezing his heart and wrinkling the diary - and a letter from Helen - that he had tucked into his pocket before he started out. As he staggered backwards a piece of shrapnel skimmed towards him. missing his chest but lacerating his left arm between the wrist and elbow. He collapsed into the shell-hole unconscious. Stretcher-bearers found him that evening.'
His left arm amputated he is invalided home and has a 'honeymoon' period with a very happy Helen, but .... well, it's interesting to read, along with Marlowe's, Shelley's, Katherine Mansfield's, Plath's and Angela Carter's resurrections.

What does this all amount to? My feeling is that some readers, me for one, love these things and others, perhaps more scrupulous and scholarly types, loathe them. I rarely get through  a great bumper biography I've bought or borrowed - there have been exceptions, George Eliot's notably - but I learn plenty and sometimes retain more deeply from novels.

Edward Thomas wasn't a fiction reviewer - why is that? - but he had read everything that mattered, and of course he tried his own, the odd 'Happy-Go-Lucky Morgans', a 'faction' indeed as it is based on his own Welsh family in London.  Guy Cuthbertson (OUP) will elucidate it I know and I'll try it again.

 No poem as this is all prose so:
From The Childhood of Edward Thomas - his unfinished autobiography:
So I used to enjoy going about with Henry to look at the pigeon shops in Wandsworth, Battersea and Clapham, occasionally to visit the back-garden lofts of working men in the same neighbourhoods. He had me in tow and I think I remained for the most part silent in the background unless I had a bird to buy. These long rambles among crowds of working people under the gaslight, in all sorts of weathers, were a great pleasure and were interrupted by a greater one when we stood and looked at pigeons in an atmosphere of shag smoke, grain and birds. At one time I paid a good many visits to the lofts of a tradesman in our neighbourhood, a tall gross pale-faced man with a truculent geniality. He was said to ill-treat the small wife who did most of the shop work and to be going under an assumed name for some bad reason. John would never have endured him: if he had to deal with men below him he preferred gamekeepers and such like who had to be tipped and knew their place. But the man kept scores of long-distance homing pigeons. Their high circlings visible from our back garden, and their rushing lower flight between the chimney-pots, were sublime to me. It was a great day therefore when I went round to him to get the pair of young black chequers which I had been awaiting for many days. I was to have them, so I understood, for two-and-six the pair. When I already had them in my hands I learnt that they were two-and-six each. This was beyond my means, nor did I want to have one of them at such a price. So he took them back into his hands at the door. Then while I was still lingering he put the head of one bird in his mouth, as I imagined in fun, or to slip a grain into its beak. His teeth closed on the slender neck tighter and tighter, the wings flapped and quivered, and when he opened his jaws the bird was dead. I was speechless, on the edge of tears. He looked down at me with a half-pitying grin, remarking that I was "still soft-hearted". My tenderness turned to hatred for the man, yet I could not speak. I dared not show my feeling. With only a meek resentfulness I even accepted his gift of the surviving bird. It became the prize of my pigeon house, always distinguished as "the young homer". The man I never did more than nod to again. 

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