Thursday, 1 March 2012

Writing Heroes (2)

Last World Book Day I had the bright idea about writing about some of my writing heroes. I enjoyed it so much I suggested rather foolishly that it might be a regular feature of this blog. Alas, my life is never like that, and another year has whizzed by without me repeating the exercise. But last night, chatting to my cousin Christina on twitter, I got thinking about some more writing heroes. Maybe, this needs to be an annual event instead. So here, for 2012 (in no order of preference) are some more:

Jeanette Winterson Oh how I love Jeanette Winterson's writing. Oh how I wish I could write like that. She burst into my consciousness in the 1980's with her debut novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, surely the best rites of passage novel ever written. It's a longstanding favourite of mine (featuring as one of my rave reviews) recently enhanced by Winterson's brilliant memoir Why Be Happy When You Can be Normal which told the real (and somewhat more painful) story. After Oranges came a flurry of marvellous novels which I devoured eagerly:  The Passion, Sexing the Cherry, Boating for Beginners, loving the wit, the fabulism, use of myth, religious imagery and the quest for love and indepence that permeates these novels.  I drifted away from her for a bit after that, till I was given Lighthousekeeping - an extraordinary book about people living in fantastical situations on the edge of things - and I was back in the fan club. Shortly after that I  read Gut Symmetries which is quite simply a work of genius. Only Winterson would dare to write a book that connects Grand Unified Theory, the Ship of Fools, wormtunnels with stomach illnesses, love triangles and missing persons, all wrapped together with dazzling language, and word play. Gut Symmetries manages to be both a grand narrative that is funny and poignant and a book of ideas that I still think about four years later. So, if Winterson isn't on your bookshelves she should be. You really won't be disappointed.

David Mitchell is another writer I'd love to be. He's one of the rare authors that my beloved and I both adore in equal measure. Since we read his lauded debut novel Ghostwritten in 1999 we have been desperate to grab our hands on everything he's ever written. Ghostwritten appears at first glance to be a series of short stories, which at first seem to have little to do with each other, but gradually the reader notices that the Japanese lovers in the background of the first story about a terrorist, take centre stage in the second. The cheating cleaner who has an affair with the lost financier in Singapore, reemerges as the granddaughter of a Chinese peasant woman who survives the brutality of Japanese and Chinese soldiers on a lonely mountain. The tree that the Chinese woman thinks speaks to  her, is in fact a lost soul seeking rebirth. Altogether these stories lead us to consider what we believe, how can oppression be resisted, how do we survive pain, what are the consequences of our actions and what connects us in our humanity. Mitchell is a fine narrative writer, whose use of imagery is outstanding and like Winterson, is a master of wordplay. He is also experimental, as seen in Number 9 Dream where his hero, a Japanese jazz lover fantasises about finding his father as he drifts between reality and imaginary worlds, perhaps pursued by gangster, perhaps not. The book ends in a breathtakingly audacious fashion that I suspect only Mitchell could get away with.Cloud Atlas is my favourite - 6 interlocking novellas in completely different genres (adventure, 1920's cad, thriller, farce, scifi, apocalyptic) all dealing with similar themes to Ghostwritten, and written with skill and passion. Black Swan Green, Mitchell's rite of passage novel, is less interesting, but it is still way above the average writer, whilst The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, after a slightly slow first part, becomes unputdownable. Mitchell's prose is light and airy, his images linger, and his characters are brilliantly drawn. He's a pleasure to read, and on every re-reading, I always find something new. Best of all, he loves to treat his fans with in-jokes, bit characters in one book take a lead role in another, and half the fun of a new Mitchell is spotting the references to previous books. I can't get enough of him and, once you read  him, nor will you.

Salman Rushdie is the reason I'm writing this post tonight, on the back of my cousin Christina tweeting about Midnight's Children yesterday. Midnight's Children is a bit of a marmite book. It's been voted the Booker of Bookers. Its advocates adore the magic realism, the endless diversionary stories, the linking of the hero Saleem Sinai to the history of independent India, which allows Rushdie to shine a light on the country of his birth. Critics say it's wordy and I do have to say, on re-reading they have a point. I tend to love novelists who are spare (like Mitchell, Greene, Forster) and Rushdie's prose can seem florid and bombastic in contrast. However, for me it's part of the charm - Rushdie is deliberately writing as an Indian storyteller in the market place, weaving ever more fantastical elements in his tale. And I adore the central premise of the gifts of the children born in the midnight hour that India came to independence, and how such gifts inevitabley threaten the State. Shame, Rushdie's novel about Pakistan does a similar job about Pakistan by describing the terrible events that occur inthe country of P. Rushdie has a neat trick of counterposing his fable with the odd intercession of an ironic, detached narrator who is always relieved to note that in the real Pakistan, none of these things happen. It's a brilliant device, which cleverly underlines the point he is making. And of course there's The Satanic Verses, a brilliant treatise on what we believe and why, with angels and devils grappling for good and evil, to the ultimate conclusion we have a bit of both in us. I have to confess I haven't really liked much else Rushdie has written, but these three fine novels can't be bettered.

JRR Tolkien gets my vote for The Hobbit and, of course, The Lord of the Rings. I am not a fantasy fan really, but I have returned to Tolkien again and again, with The Lord of the Rings being the book I most love to re-read. I think I love Tolkien so much because I resisted him for so long. My many siblings kept going on about him to such an extent I refused to read him, till one half term when I was 13, I finally picked up The Hobbit out of boredom and found I couldn't put it down. It was one of the most intense reading experiences I've ever had, as when I'd finished, I immediately picked up The Lord of The Rings, reading the whole lot in 4 days. What's not to love about both books? The Hobbit, being intentionally written for children, is obviously much simpler, but it's well written, brilliantly paced, and packed with wonderful characters. Bilbo Baggins' journey from a nervous, ordinary hobbit who likes a quiet life, to a bold resourceful adventurer, whose wit and quick thinking saves his companions time and again, is a wonder to behold. The dwarves he journeys with are all memorable, as are Gandalf, the wizard, and, of course, Gollum, whose brief appearance here, is far more important than the reader first realises. The Hobbit is a brilliant read aloud book, and it's given me great pleasure to read it to my children, as we've all enjoyed the humour and regular cliff hangers. And though it's simpler than the follow  up, it is still full of moral complexity, which marks it out from most children's books. The Lord of the Rings is a worthy successor, with Frodo being an equally beguiling reluctant hero. One who chooses the worst of all task, though he does "not know the way" because it is the right thing to do. His journey alone, is a tale worth reading, as he is pursued into the wilderness, and dark places, tempted beyond all endurance to achieve his aim. But his fellow travellers are also a joy to journey with. The other hobbits, Sam, Pippin and Merry, often there for comic effect, but equally grow in stature as they deal with their own individual struggles. Strider, the Ranger, who is later revealed as Aragorn, the returning King. Not being a fan of royalty or soldiers, I should hate Strider, but he's so noble, so strong, yetvulnerable, I fall in love with him every single time. Gandalf makes a welcome return, as does Gollum, whose original ownership of the ring is the cause of all the trouble, and whose own journey is both terrifying and sad. I do find the Elves a little bit twee as I get older, and must confess to skipping over the poetry a lot of the time, but Tolkien's storytelling is masterly and as with The Hobbit, he just keeps you begging for more. In both books, his descriptions of landscape are so rich and sensuous that I have vivid pictures of Mirkwood, Moria, Rivendell, Lorien in my mind. And although there are a lot of battles in both books, Tolkien is clear that they're not from choice. His solution to the war is not for the heroes to destroy evil using the enemy's weapon, Sauron's ring, but to destroy the ring itself. I can't think of a better outcome for violence than that.  But, the best mark of a good book is whether you are disappointed when you finish. And I am. Every single time. I'm currently reading it to my 9  year old, his first and my thirty third reading, we're both completely entranced. As I  hope you will be.

So there you have it, 4 more heroes, who I hope you'll enjoy too. I doubt I'll get round to doing this again for a while. See you next year?


John Wiswell said...

Rushdie certainly can be unbearable in his verbosity, but if you buy in then even that burden becomes a pleasure. Or so I'm told.

What stands out about Cloud Atlas for you, Virginia? I've heard so many positive things about it.

Virginia Moffatt said...

Hi John, thanks for popping by. I'd agree with that about Rushdie on the three I've quoted because he carries you along by sheer force of storytelling. Later novels don't quite work as well for me...

There are so many things about Cloud Atlas I love:

1. Mitchell's control of voice is absolutely perfect. 18th Century lawyer, early 20th Century cad, 1970's thriller, 1990's farce, cyberpunk future, post-apocalyptic rural community. He nails every single style convincingly. And his imaginary languages of the future are astonishing - you really can see how words could develop that way. (One caveat, you do have to concentrate with the oldfashioned words in part 1 and the future language of 5&6 but it is so worth it).

2. The book is so perfectly constructed. It starts with the diary of the 18th C lawyer which races along before suddenly stopping half way through a page. The next chapter deals with the
20th cad, which halts at a pivotal moment. The 1970's thriller stops with a major cliffhanger and so it goes on until we reach the central tale of a post apocalyptic community struggling to survive. That story is told in entirety, and then we return to the second half of the cyberpunk novella, and each part then closes up taking us right back to the beginning. It is a thing of beauty and it took several readings for me to realise that it exactly reflected the sonata "Cloud Atlas", the cad is working on. (A piece for 6 instruments, each starting out with their variation of a theme, culminating in a central section, and each instrument completing their section)It's so clever and what sets Mitchell head and shoulders above the rest.

3. The stories themselves are so heartbreaking and funny, covering the same themes in different ways: slavery, resistance, hope, despair, the survival of ideas & (as I said before) what makes us human. I think my favourite is the cyberpunk - the vision of a future world controlled by corporations with burger joints run by enslaved clones is both believable and chilling.

Oh I could go on, and on. But I hope that gives you a flavour?