Novel Thoughts

It is said that everybody has at least novel in them. Mind you, I’m not sure who says it. And, come to think of it, I’m not sure what it really means. (And I’m sorry for starting a sentence with “and”. It just came out like that.)

In one sense, everybody has the story of their lives to tell. Fictionalising your life or taking aspects of it to use in fiction; well, that’s another story.

I know of at least three people who are writing novels. One of them is apparently writing a novella, so he can publish ahead of his friend. A novella, according to the nearest dictionary, not the internet, is a short narrative story. Before you scoff, presumably ‘Heart of Darkness’ and ‘A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ are novellas. Enough said.

I know at least one more who has a plan, this time for a series of children’s novels. I will not rant about ‘celebrities’ who think they can write children’s books. I am very sure the person I have in mind will make a superb job- she’s a teacher. Which is not to say that all teachers can write good novels.

Of course, writing and publishing are not necessarily the same thing, but I feel there are some remarkable novels that have never been published. However, the authors are probably not starving in the traditional garret.

Novel thoughtsMore than 30 years ago I wrote a 100,000 word novel which is best left unread. It was a pre-marriage project, written last thing at night. At least I was a disciplined writer. Last year I started to put bits of it on a WordPress blog (see obliquefictions). However it’s so poor that I have lost interest. It’s the story of…. gasp, a teacher! Who is frustrated but can’t get a boyfriend! No, not a girlfriend- I had what I thought at the time was the brilliant idea of writing it from the point of view of a woman. Hindsight makes me see it was a tiresome idea. It only proved that I had little insight into a woman’s point of view. The novel also proved that I had little idea about sex, for obvious reasons.

I started on this post after realising that so many people have wonderful stories to tell from their lives. I seem to have had more time to listen after finishing teaching. That’s nothing to do with teachers not listening, just to do with being busy.

I’ve met a man who was separated from his twin at birth, and fostered; he has only just learnt he also had another brother. Another gentleman worked for a small industrial firm whose owners turned out to be gangsters. A lady I was talking to recently saw a West Indian immigrant in the 1950’s, immediately resolved to marry him and did so, defiant of the prejudices of the time (from both sides of the relationship). They are still happily married. Others have spent their entire lives looking after their severely disabled children, now adults. Just this morning I was hugely entertained by stories of adolescence in- let’s say Tyneside. Motorcyle misadventures (how many teenagers can you get on a bike?) featured largely. I wish I’d had a recorder or a notebook.

Perhaps they are, after all, best left unfictionalised. Should they tell their stories? It would be lovely to think they could be shared. I am astonished how many people quite happily tell of affairs they or their partners have had. Maybe we have a compulsion to tell stories of our lives, even if we don’t write them down. Perhaps, having clarified my thinking in the course of my writing, as so often, I should stop there.

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In praise of our mutual friend, Mr Dickens

Charles_Dickens_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_13103We have been watching ‘Dickensian’, a very enjoyable BBC TV drama involving many characters from the novels of Charles Dickens. This inspired me to read some more Dickens; I’ve read less than half of his novels, and I don’t suppose I shall ever read them all. (This is somehow a happy thought; all that pleasure still left.) I have been reading ‘Our Mutual Friend’ and it has prompted me to write this brief piece in praise.

I am actually reading this on Kindle, depite my occasional misgivings about that device. It tells me that I am about a third of the way through, about 160 conventional pages. Imagine: 320 pages to go!

It is, at least as I see it, a typical Dickens novel. (Bear in mind that I am not a literary academic, but a common reader.) It’s a huge, sprawling work, bearing the traces of its original serialisation. I see that it was his last finished novel. It has an enormous cast of characters. I have made myself a little map of them, to help me remember who they all are. I’ve got 20 names on it and that’s nowhere near all.

The characters are widely varied: grotesque, upright, good, bad, rich, poor, humorous, tragic. Some are noble, some are reprehensible. I think I may have identified a heroine, but I’m still not sure of the main thread of the book; there are so many interweaving plots and sub-plots. The settings are detailed and varied, from the foggy Thames to rich dining rooms. Dickens does not hesitate to attack targets from the workhouse to the idle rich. This all makes for an involved and entertaining read.

One of the great pleasures for me is the language. He could really, really write. There are great, rolling sentences, sometimes taking up whole paragraphs; there are lists, there are parodies of speech.

I would not blame anybody who did not want to tackle Dickens. He is often hard for a modern reader. I suspect I am enjoying this so much because I now have time and energy to read at length. I have come to read some of his other work through seeing film and television adaptations. There have been some really good ones, not surprisingly often by the BBC. It does help to have an idea of what is going on! To anybody who wants to tackle Dickens but is daunted, I would recommend ‘A Christmas Carol’. It’s what we would call a novella, familar and readable.

I’m sure that there are endless criticisms that could be made of Mr Dickens. I’m not going to make them. I love the books and think he was a genius.