Some of my Favourite People are Books (part two)

It’s usual for a list of great novels to include

  • an inscrutable foreign masterpiece from the present-day
  • one Jane Austen title (choice depends on intellectual criteria, such as which film hero was most fanciable)
  • an angst novel (Philip Roth often fits the bill)
  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Catch-22
  • and *drum roll* Anna Karenina.

bookshelf

Maybe you’re waiting with bated breath for Rosamund Bartlett’s new translation? Her Anna Karenina, due to be published in August, is already ranked about two millionth on Amazon (how does that happen? Tolstoy pulling rank again?).

Sorry to disappoint, but my choice of Russian blockbuster is by Boris Pasternak. When I first read it, I was neither a medic nor a writer, whereas Yuri Zhivago was both.

It snowed and snowed, the whole world over,

Snow swept the world from end to end.

A candle burned on the table;

A candle burned.

I loved Doctor Zhivago for its action, its setting, its characters, its lyricism (and Omar Sharif). I even studied Russian and tried to write poetry. Then I figured out the real lesson: to avoid becoming as self-absorbed as Pasternak’s hero. Also, not to turn into a bloke, especially not one with a frosted tache and a balalaika.

Dr Zhivago

Catch-22 may not be on this list, but I treasure another novel that gave rise to a very current phrase. Yes, the past is a foreign country in L P Hartley’s The Go-Between. Twelve-year old Leo figures out the facts of life. He also figures he’s being used.

“Well,” he said, “let’s make a bargain. I’ll tell you all about spooning, but on one condition.”

I knew what he was going to say, but for form’s sake I asked: “What is it?”

“That you’ll go on being our postman.”

While the lad was naïve by today’s standards, the book is still fresh for 1953 and nicely captures Leo’s post-traumatic stress. By comparison The Shrimp and the Anemone is rather dull. Which is to say that I don’t recall any spooning.

My choice of modern foreign masterpiece is the perfectly scrutable The Yacoubian Building. If you haven’t read it, it’s a lively ensemble novel peopled by a doorman, his family, a gay newspaper editor, Islamists, and the other motley inhabitants of the building on Suleiman Basha Street. Here’s a passage about the womanizing aristo Zaki Bey.

From Lady Kamla (she of the inexorable appetite) he learned how to start and when to desist and how to ask for the most abandoned sexual positions in extremely refined French. Zaki Bey has also slept with women of all classes – oriental dancers, foreigners, society ladies and the wives of the eminent and distinguished, university and secondary school students, even fallen women, peasant women, and housemaids. Every one had her special flavor, and he would often laughingly compare the bedding of Lady Kamla with its rules of protocol and that of the beggar woman he picked up one night when drunk in his Buick and took back to his apartment in Baehler Passage, and who he discovered, when he went into the bathroom with her to wash her body himself, to be so poor that she made her underwear out of empty cement sacks. *

The story may seem a bit ‘told’ for some, but that’s probably the nature of Arabic literature. The book has special resonance for me as I’ve lived in Cairo, although Al-Aswany doesn’t describe anything as atmospheric as my first terrifying day at school when I screamed so much that I threw up onto the teacher’s shoes.

For a tale that moves at breakneck speed and grips like a novice on a rearing stallion, look no further than Dick Francis. Low-brow? Maybe. Formulaic? Sometimes. But brilliant all the same, right from the off. This is from For Kicks.

The Earl of October drove into my life in a pale blue Holden that had seen better days, and danger and death tagged along for the ride.

I’m not the only fan of his opening style. Here’s what writer and blogger Emma Darwin has to say in Straight proof: what any of us can learn from Dick Francis.

Dick Francis

After brooding Russians, a traumatized adolescence, Egyptian neighbours and skulduggery in the stables, what could I possibly have left out? Chick-lit, that’s what. If you’ve read Me Before You by JoJo Moyes, you’ll know that Will has a life-changing motorbike crash.

“So, Patrick,” Will said, perhaps sensing my discomfort. “Louisa tells me you’re a personal trainer. What does that involve?”

I so wished he hadn’t asked. Patrick launched into his sales spiel, all about personal motivation and how a fit body made for a healthy mind. Then he segued into his training schedule for the Xtreme Viking – the temperature of the North Sea, the body fat ratios needed for marathon running, the best times in each discipline. I normally tuned out at this point, but all I could think of now, with Will beside me, was how inappropriate it was.

 What have all these books got in common?

A cracking story. Lots of conflict. Great dialogue. Wit, of course. I’m pretty sure there’s something else too, but it’s hard to analyse when you’re in awe so I’m damned if I know. Ask me again when I’ve got more of my own books onto other people’s shelves of favourites.

 

 *I had to correct the grammar in the English translation by Humphrey Davies. Sloppy editing, HarperCollins.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Where on earth can you meet someone?

When you’re 30-something, it’s tough to meet people.  I know a couple who met on an allotment, but, when I tried growing vegetables, all I pulled was a bunch of deformed carrots.

Laura has a similar problem.  At uni, men were young, plentiful and persistent.  Now it’s a different story.

She dreams she’ll randomly meet a hot guy while out shopping.  He’ll have eyes like molten chocolate and a French name like Yves.  They’ll swap phone numbers and then – well, the rest will be in soft-focus.   shoppingIn point of fact, the only time she spotted anyone attractive in a shop, she up-ended her handbag in the aisle.  Instead of helping her collect coins and tampons off the floor while begging for her number, the guy turned away and carried on studying tea-bag prices.

Back to dating websites then.  Where she’s 34, called Emma, pretends she’s not a lawyer, and gives a fake phone number.  It’s a pay-as-you-go mobile she can easily discard.  All those phoney layers will have to come off if (or when?) when she meets someone nice.  She’ll cross that bridge when she gets to it.

Geoff is another character out of my forthcoming novel.  He’s a newly divorced doctor, and the nice pay packet no longer makes up for sky-rocketing patient demand and new government diktats every other day.  During his years working in hospitals, women threw themselves at him, and academic awards came equally fast and thick.  stethoscopeBut he’s been a GP for over 10 years now, and the sea is remarkably empty of fish.  GMC guidelines forbid relationships with patients, and he doesn’t fancy the new receptionist, even if the patients adore her.   Plus there’s a new problem now.  He can’t perform as he once did.

Geoff returns the call to the nursing home.  Bad news: 94-year old Mrs Montgomery fell out of bed again so he’ll have to visit.  She seems fine, they say, but as always the staff want to ‘cover’ themselves.

Get yourselves a duvet, thinks Geoff as he gets into his car.

Karen, now.  Men haven’t exactly been beating a path to her dilapidated front door.  No, her best friend tells her, the meter reader doesn’t count.

Newly single, Karen has 4 children and no job.  She’s still confident she’ll meet someone eventually, even if all the evidence so far is against it.

After a clear-out, today she’s headed for the recycling centre.  It’s on her way to the hairdresser’s for a much overdue appointment, via the shoe repairers and the bank.  Why spend more on petrol than you have to?  Karen doesn’t obsess about her appearance, especially when she’s busy cramming her clapped-out Toyota with bags of garden refuse, broken toys, mouldy trainers, 994-piece puzzles, and clothes that her kids have worn to death.recyclingParking her car in front of the containers, she notices a man in a green T-shirt unloading a wardrobe from the back of his estate car.  Nice buns.

He turns to face her.  It’s a Nike T-shirt, and more to the point he has a great smile.  She makes eye contact and returns the smile with a Hi, ready to talk about the wardrobe, or anything really.

He clocks her, but his smile promptly fades.  In fact he hot-foots it back to his car, driving off a lot faster than the 5 mph limit.

When she gets to the hairdresser’s, Karen is ashamed to see in the mirror just how bad her roots have got, how much garden rubbish she has on her sweatshirt and, in short, how bad she looks.

Michael knows exactly where to meet women.  After all, he’s an accountant, so he’s got it planned down to the last detail.  That’s how he does everything, even watching porn.

More to come in my novel on dating. Meanwhile why not take a moment to share your experience of meeting people? I’d love to hear your tips too.

One Good Thing about Having Surgery

Sanjay is only in his 30s but he’s had a lot of surgery, all of it since the cancer was diagnosed. That’s if you don’t count ingrowing toenails as a teenager, now best forgotten along with his pongy trainers.

As with Laura, Geoff and the other people in my novel, I made Sanjay up.  He only lives, breathes and sheds tears in my fiction.

In his opinion, the only good thing about operations is the pre-med.  That injection is chock-full of morphine.   Makes you as legless as a freshers’ night out.  There’s also some stuff to dry up secretions, so your mouth is like an African drought.  But with the morphine on board, who gives a fuck?

Then the anaesthetist gets him to make a fist.  “Now count to 10 for me.”   He never gets beyond four before drifting away.230991_2134 surgeon crop

Whatever delicious thoughts he has on going to sleep, there’s always hell to pay when he wakes up.  Last time, someone was moaning like a wounded animal in the recovery room.

And Sanjay was in serious pain.  Just because you were asleep when they plunged a knife into your neck didn’t stop it hurting like hell afterwards.

He thought of his mate Ben.  He must have been in agony for hours.  Sanjay wondered if anyone had given him enough morphine, whatever ‘enough’ means when an IED has ripped off one of your arms and a hunk of leg.  Was there was someone sitting by him, like this nurse here?  Probably not.  Just another wounded soldier, doing his best with a tourniquet and praying the MERT would show before they both snuffed it.

In the recovery room, Sanjay had the irresistible urge to sit up, but the pain and the nurse kept forcing him back down.  He had a sore throat and felt sick.  The smell of antiseptic didn’t help, nor did the bilious scent of dressings.  Nurses insisted there was no smell, but they were wrong.  Since the chemo, he could smell everything.

The moaning still hadn’t stopped.  Some poor deranged sod really didn’t want to be here.  “Hush now” the nurse said. “I’ll get you a sip of water.”

The thirst was unbearable, but all he got was a plastic thimble of water, with instructions to take a small sip.  Most of it went down the front of his hospital gown.  Miraculously, the moaning stopped when he drank the water, which was when Sanjay realized that he was the deranged sod making all the noise.

He patted his neck and shoulder tentatively through the dressing.  Strange that such a small procedure would lead to so much trouble.  Maybe it was the drugs.  It was always a bad idea to mix drugs, but hospitals dosed you with reckless abandon, with gases out of metal cylinders, and loads more stuff into your veins.  One of the anaesthetists explained it.  She was one of the new docs, a woman with long red hair and a piercing that went right through a massive freckle on the side of her nose.

She was flirting with him, he was sure.  So he flirted back, as best one could when lying down and wearing a hospital gown instead of Paul Smith loafers, Armani jeans and lucky pants.  That was when he learned about the IV anaesthetic drugs, like fentanyl and ketamine.  All the stuff to make sure you didn’t come to during the op. No wonder by the time he got to the recovery room he felt he’d gone four rounds with David Haye and had an overdose of Ivory Wave or whatever high you could get for a tenner these days.

Jeremy's scalpel

He’s hoping he won’t go under the knife again, but the cancer always seems to have other ideas.

What’s in a name, by George?

So it’s George Alexander Louis. Altogether more regal than, say, Clive or Keith, though I think it’s a shame William and Kate didn’t choose College. We’ve never had a monarch called King College Cambridge.KCC cropped

Baby Cambridge’s name doesn’t need to be hip and happening because it will set the trend for years to come.  He may grow up liking his first name (as most Georges seem to) or not.  A slew of given names brings the luxury of choice, though this is the first time in about 100 years that a Royal baby has had only three names instead of four.

Parents sometimes goof, as with the handle aired a while back on ITV’s This Morning.  Presenters Phil and Fern couldn’t contain themselves.  Who could, with a Hugh Janus?

When I was considering names for my own sons, I turned to the pages of the Financial Times for inspiration.  Perhaps names like Julian, James, Henry or Anthony would give them a leg-up on the ladder to success (I’ll get back to you).

Parents have to settle on only a handful of names for their own children, while writers get to dream up many more.  It’s fun, and if someone suggests something better, you can change it with just a few keystrokes.

In fiction, names can give away a person’s character.  You just know Dr Legg is going to be an orthopaedic surgeon, and Professor Sir Benjamin Bigpurse is coining it from his private practice.  Cruella De Vil is a prime example of a villain’s name, though Voldemort and Captain Hook are great too.

Reading To The Lighthouse, it’s obvious that Augustus Carmichael is a poet’s moniker and that Lily Briscoe is as complicated as hell, though perhaps the more obvious clue lies in the author’s name. Personally I’m still mystified by Seymour Glass, JD Salinger’s memorable if not wholly transparent choice.

As has been observed, even the naming of cats is a difficult matter. I’ve stuck to fruits for my own cats. Thus we’ve had Bananas, Peaches, and Cherries.

future's orange cropped

The current incumbent is Mishmish, meaning apricot in Arabic and Hebrew.  But did we miss a trick when we overlooked Paw-paws?

‘Am I in your book then?’

If you’re rash enough to tell your friends you’re working on a novel, they’ll be dying to know if they’re in it.bookshelf crop

If? What am I saying! Of course you’ve told them. Blabbing about work in progress may stifle the muse, but the people in your life need to know why you stay in every night with your laptop and a bag of Doritos, thumbing through old Lands’ End catalogues in the vain hope of overcoming writer’s block.

So back to that pesky question. ‘Am I in your book?’

Of course they’re not. Yet no matter how many times you reply that it’s fiction, goddammit, they expect a cameo role, minimum.

If you don’t shoehorn them in, they’ll assume you don’t find them interesting enough. So they dangle tempting revelations. ‘You do know I was George Clooney’s girlfriend/chauffeur/manicurist? And did I tell you about the time I wrestled three KGB men under water?’

I usually reply ‘Cool. But it’s not that kind of book.’

Some people plead to be put into prose. Even non-fiction. Does Michele really want to end up in the chapter on personality disorder? Now that’s serious attention-seeking.

Yes, it would be great to use real characters. There are folks I’d love to transplant wholesale into a book, where they’d take root and flourish. Sadly, I can’t put in any of the wonderful patients I’ve seen over the years, even if it would save my imagination a lot of pointless exertion.

Then there are colleagues past and present: devoted, brilliant, arrogant, disillusioned, or dead drunk. No surprise I’ve got a doctor is in my forthcoming novel. Geoff is burnt out and now, going through a mid-life crisis, he wonders if he really does make people better. I like to think he comes across as authentic. All the same, he’s not real, nor is he based on any one person in particular. And he’s definitely not you, even if you have erectile problems and a cute son with asthma.

If you’ve already written your work of fiction, you’re doomed because family and friends always think they’re in it. What part of the word ‘fiction’ is so hard to get?

Real people don’t go in novels (though there are exceptions, like Princess Margaret in Edward St Aubyn’s Some Hope). Here’s why.

1. When you finally get off your sofa you won’t have any friends left.
2. The UK is the libel capital of the world. For more on what can happen, see John Preston’s recent Sunday Telegraph piece The Murky World of Literary Libel.

Fellow writers, I’d love to hear your views.

The Best Sex Ever

A great sex scene in a novel is like happiness.  When you see it, you know.

But it’s not easy to nail. The Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction award – rightly feted at the In and Out Club in London – was launched in 1993. Infrared’s author Nancy Huston scoped the prize in 2012 with unforgettable imagery like “my sex swimming like a fish in water”. I’m guessing it gets harpooned later.

Mounting often features in sex scenes but Rowan Somerville tweaked the cliché: “like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too-blunt pin he screwed himself into her”. As Somerville said when accepting the award, there’s nothing more English than bad sex.

Just choosing the words is a challenge. Will they be biologically correct, or do you prefer words you don’t want the kids to repeat? Maybe there’ll be some common metaphors, or fancy phrases like Ben Masters’ ‘elfin grot’. Some writers shoehorn in some long words like anaconda, rissorgimento and philately. It makes readers think they’re erudite, or at least that they own a dictionary.

One of my favourite writers is Penelope Lively who does unresolved sexual tension better than anyone I know. Now and then we still get to go all the way. Bliss. Instead of using the whole thesaurus, she uses all the senses, as in The Photograph.

He spreads his coat on the grass, puts her down on it. She kicks off her trousers. It is the most urgent sex he can ever remember, a glorious immediacy, pinned forever in that place – the wind, the smell of crushed grass, some small piping bird, sheep moving about.

Lively doesn’t need to say that the grass is scratchy on the skin.  Why else would Glyn put his coat down?

Not all readers are after the same thing. Sometimes raw and raunchy fit the bill perfectly, as in Mel Sherratt’s Taunting the Dead.

She ran the tip of her tongue up and down his shaft as he held her head in place. Might as well get it over with and then she could be on her way.

Maggie O’Farrell’s After You’d Gone has this study of Alice losing her virginity.

She begins counting the punching thrusts to try to block out the consciousness of this heaving, panting body thrashing about on top of hers. At number seventy-eight, she feels his back arch and at seventy-nine, he does a kind of prolonged rigid shudder and collapses on to her, breathing hard.

That was infinitely sad. For making sex funny, you have to hand it to Howard Jacobson. Here’s a passage from Coming from Behind.

Now that his gown has ridden up his back and hangs over his face, he is as blind as a school photographer, and it is his other end anyway… which confronts the door.

For me, there’s one criterion above all that’s the hallmark of a good sex scene. It’s the one I use in my fiction, and it’s simply this: when you read about the characters having it off, does it turn you on?

I’d love to hear what you look for in a fictional sex scene and who your favourite authors are.