Tuesday, 14 October 2014

A long, long trail a-winding - Dennis Hamley

     First things first. Kay's visa unexpectedly arrived on Wednesday 17th, the day before polling day for the Scottish Referendum. We don't think there was any connection between the two events, though for us one was as epoch-making as the other. Did our campaign have any effect? Who knows? It may be that they suddenly sent it to rid themselves of a minor irritant.
          We'd contacted our MP  and a message had been sent to a friendly reporter on the Oxford Mail and Times  which I quickly had to retract. It might  have been on the way anyway. Only sometimes do I consider the futile fantasy that our MP took my letter outlining the points I made in my last blog to Theresa May, saying, 'We've been rumbled.' However, we can't discount the possibility of this bureaucratic monolith having one or two nice people working for it. Nevertheless, I stand by every word I wrote except for one thing. Julia Jones in a comment said that it's not zero tolerance with them but something even worse -  they persecute soft targets to fulfil quotas to make the figures look good and put a smokescreen round their obvious incompetence in the areas that matter. A loud ring of truth there. It's exactly what the KGB used to do. Though theirs was (is?) a smokescreen concealing brutal and deadly efficiency.

          When you read this it will be my birthday (I chose the 14th as blogging day so I would never forget to write it) and we will be many miles away in Oz. Every minute there must be used to the full. I may not tread that way again.  There won't be much time to sit, think and write. But I must find some time, because I'm dealing with a particular writing problem which has dogged me ever since I started, some years ago now, the book which will complete the the Ellen Trilogy:  Ellen's People, Divided Loyalties - and Unfinished Business.
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N.B. The Divided Loyalties cover is a stopgap. The photograph on the original would have cost me £400 to reproduce. The image here, from a painting by David Rowlands depicting an actual event, was incompatible in its original form so this is a quick cobbling-together. It needs considerable redesign and photoshopping to make it really acceptable. It will get them.

          Writers sometimes say it's their second book which is the problem. This can be even clearer in a trilogy. For example, after the delighted anticipation of setting out on a great adventure in The Fellowship of the Ring and before The Return of the King's tumultuous climax at Mordor and the wonderful pastoral coda in the Shire, The Two Towers must be a candidate for The Most Boring Book Ever Written. 'The dead vast and middle'... etc. But without this long account of pointless battles the trilogy might not make sense.

          I've never felt this thing about second books. My own second book was both a release and a relief. The first one had taught me all the things not to do and now I could love writing every word of the new one. I've only written one true trilogy - the Hare Trilogy - and the same applied. I never started out to write a trilogy: Hare's Choice was meant to stand alone. It took me three years to realise the theme needed the threefold structure I find so satisfying and that was only when I realised what the second book had to be. Closing the circle with the third was the real challenge.

          Hare's Choice ends on a question mark. I had set a question to Hare which she could answer but I couldn't. Her choice completes the book, in fact is the whole point of it, but what she chooses was, I thought, unknowable. Only gradually did I realise that her choice could be known after all and that I had a duty to her, the readers and even myself to sort out what it was. So I set about writing Badger's Fate. I knew that this book would not answer the question. In fact, when I'd finished it I was no nearer to an answer. All I knew was that Badger would not make the same choice as Hare had. Nevertheless, I raced along with it. The story came easily and as it progressed I realised that its deep structure concerned the nature of narrative, the emotional integrity of the story and the consistency of closure. That's big talk for a children's story but I knew I was writing something quite ambitious.

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          Looking back on it now, however, I wonder whether Badger's Fate wasn't a sort of avoidance strategy to postpone the unavoidable moment of truth. Because when I'd finished it I knew there was no escape. There were decisions to be made. The first was easy. There would be no change in Hawk's Vision's structure - first, the animal or bird living its familiar natural life and the effect this has on children watching it, second, the children's construction of a story which would dramatise their own preoccupations as well as the animal's and third, the aftermath, on a plane beyond the terrestrial, where questions can be posed and, possibly, answered. The differences in this third book would be that first, Hawk would remain alive, never facing the idea that she'd been part of a story, and second, that though they are not aware of it, the story will be really about the children themselves. And third, of course, that Hare's original question would be answered.

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In this way I found the answer to the original choice. It was a very simple answer, even blindingly obvious, but the only way to find it had been to go on this roundabout journey to back where I started. I wrote these books over twenty years ago but I hope they'll ride again in the not too distant future. I shall have them scanned with all Meg Rutherford's magical illustrations in place, to put into an omnibus Ebook and eventually a paper edition.

Comparing that experience with writing the Ellen Trilogy is instructive to me. Like Hare, Ellen's People was conceived as complete in itself: I'd wanted to write a World War 1 novel and now I had. In some ways the novel's conclusion could be seen as closure. But, especially as I wrote the last sentence, I knew that it wasn't. This was a narrative which could continue over generations. It was both a family history and also a public history. It was something I had to follow to its natural ending. 

What could that ending be? We know stories never end. As writers we make our narratives by discerning patterns and structures in raw experience. The clue to me here was that Ellen would have been born in 1899. It's reasonable to assume she might have died aged 90 in 1989, the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Therefore her consciously reasoning life would start when she was fifteen in 1914, the beginning of the 75-year European convulsion which effectively ended with the Wall's destruction. That wasn't the END OF HISTORY as the American historian Francis Fukuyama seemed to think, but a punctuation mark in it. Not a full stop but perhaps a semi-colon. The world moved on, to other and possibly even more dangerous concerns. But Ellen wouldn't move with it. Her life was the European convulsion. She touched it significantly at so many points. She would be alien in the new dispensation.

So that would be the shape of the trilogy. But now the constructional problems start. The  Ellen Trilogy is strictly bounded by time and history. The time-scale cannot be tampered with. Ellen's People is four years of one person's concentrated experience. The start of the action in Divided Loyalties is postponed until 1935. It has a much wider scope. Ellen's family now consists of a husband and three children. Ellen's story continues, but the central experiences are those of Matthias, Paul, Anna, their German cousin Helmut and especially Walter, who carries the novel's fault-line inside himself. The novel covers eleven years, ending in 1946: longer than its predecessor, more diffuse and yet through its separate viewpoints more selective but just as concentrated. And it leaves us with two major concerns for the third in the trilogy. One is positive, looking towards what might be great personal fulfilment. The other is a gaping hole: a piece of unfinished business which needs - but may not get - a proper healing process.

In some ways, writing Divided Loyalties, like writing Badger's Fate, was almost a piece of avoidance strategy. It emerged easily and naturally and postponed the big questions to be asked in any completion of the trilogy.

And this final book has forty-three years to cover. The action starts in 1956, so ten years are dealt with straight away. Thirty-three to go. There are the further stories of existing characters. There is the progress of a new, crucially important character who is right at the eye of this family's storm. Finally there is the shape of Ellen's own life so that she can come to terms with it and evaluate it for herself - and also dramatise some of the experience which has only been hinted at during the missing sixteen years between the end of Ellen's People and the beginning of Divided Loyalties and which has great bearing on the whole story and on Ellen's life.

A big agenda and only three hundred pages to fit it into. Might the story be stretched too thinly? Will the different stories tie properly together? Might there be pages of historical fill-in to provide contexts which the closeness of events in the first two didn't need and which might descend into pages of 'telling', not 'showing'? Not if I can help it. Time will tell.

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The Kremlin from the river. Unavoidably included in the story.

I've spent five years considering these matters while I've been doing other things. Perhaps the removal of the pressure to have all the problems solved in a single year when Walker declined to publish the third novel might have been a blessing in disguise. By accepting it they would have put a necessary pistol to my head. Anyway, I think I'm close to solving some of them as the writing process doggedly (and intermittently) continues. Though it's over two-thirds finished I'm not going to have it ready in November as I'd hoped, to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This great event will form one half of the climax - an outpouring of joy at the same time as Ellen's life comes to an end.

A final word about endings, especially to something as big as this whole undertaking has turned out to be. For me, two of the greatest moments in all the arts are these: a quite short passage in Beethoven's 9th symphony and WB Yeats's poem 'The Circus Animals' Desertion'. The Yeats poem shows the powerful images of his earlier work shambling out of the ring, coats dull, strength gone, their purpose fulfilled. Is the poet saying a long farewell to all his greatness? He is left with 'the foul rag and bone shop of the heart'. But isn't that all we've got and the source of everything worthwhile? Can it lead to a new sort of poetry?

Beethoven in the last movement of the Choral Symphony does something which never fails to make the hairs on the back of my head rise. The double bass is talking, almost a human voice debating internally, a debate which is interspersed with memories of all the main themes in the first three movements. It's as if Beethoven is saying.'Listen. These were good themes, they deserve to be considered again, but now I've done with them. Let the new world begin.' And so the Ode to Joy can now start. Does that come from the foul rag and bone shop of the heart too?

Of course, the new start now the old ways are finished needn't necessarily lead to a better experience. In real life they sadly haven't. We can take nothing for granted. But that's why I want a period of final reflection on old themes for Ellen at home as the new joy erupts in Berlin. Stories are never finished and there's always ambiguity in even the smoothest closure.

So I'd better get on with it or you'll think this blog is just another bit of avoidance strategy. Well, it probably is.


Lydia Bennet said...

Gosh Dennis it's quite a saga! plenty of action and drama going on in that segment of history. Good luck with finishing the trilogy, unless you want to make it a tetralogy!

Reb MacRath said...

Well done, Dennis. Love that final aphorism about stgories never being finished...ambiguity remaining in even the smoothest closure.