The Book I want to Leave Behind

I think I have started the book I want to leave behind. It will take a while so hopefully this is a good portent. It could of course take itself off into another story of love, these finding Mr Rochester/Darcy stories could pour out of me endlessly if I don’t exercise self control and rein them in.  The delicious escapism of those completed to date is addictive and real life changes places with my own imaginings before my very eyes while my stoical self looks on aghast at their ability to seduce.

Since I have so far failed, though not given up on , finding representation, someone to like my voice enough to take me on, and the more than minor to me now, problem that I cannot open the hard drive on which everything so far was stored I am listing them here just for the record. The following are those I consider the best as well as the most recent only. The short story published on this blog as well as the previous story I tried to serialize and subsequently took off after zero feedback entitled Five Days in Provence I now consider as exercises along the way and never as something with which to approach agents or publishers.

My first completed full length novel Casino Café running in at 100,000 words is set in the South of France and Italy. Originally written in 2011, edited and re edited with some changing of chapter order following numerous refusal slips it was completed sometime the following year. The blurb on the back cover would read something like this;

Daisy living quietly in the South of France on a modest income looking after her aging mother  has a chance encounter with a charismatic and ruthless Italian the head of a powerful global corporation. Embittered by  the consequence of a childhood manipulated by his own mother, in her youth a beautiful but selfish Italian socialite, he sees in Daisy the perfect candidate for marriage in name only in order to inherit a palazzo that once belonged to his Uncle. Daisy is swept away under the Pygmalion influence of Gianni at a loss to understand his true character as increasingly and  hopelessly  in love  on a collision course with heartbreak her worse fears are realized.

After this I wrote two short novels 50,000 words in fairly easy succession both of which I am pleased enough with to send out to be finally born in print.

Angel Wings is set this time in Venice where the heroine Iris Lake rents a studio to discover herself as well as the city. Her neighbour, an American Italian Max Fratelli is a successful writer of a famous Italian detective series. Both protagonist’s have to come to terms with their respective past in order to meet the future.Iris, a painter finally realizes her dream to live in Murano finding a new sweetness in her life, as sweet as the delicate pastries Angel Wings thanks to the enigmatic Max Fratelli.

Blanche Neige is the provisional title for the second novel of the same length. The heroine Blanche White abused by her step father runs away to her grandmother in London who takes her to her apartment in Monaco for the summer. She meets and marries there at eighteen, a Russian business man who keeps her in luxury but leaves her for long periods alone. When two years later it is discovered that he is in fact a bigamist with a wife in St Petersburg Blanche decides she must live her own life and get a job. With no experience or qualifications she is pleased when she is employed as a carer and  part time cook for an elderly English writer living in Monte Carlo despite the obvious disapproval of his son. Blanche is happily finding her feet when her employer’s son returns to Monte Carlo to visit his father accompanied by his young son. Determined not to be intimidated by his obvious hostility she is completely unprepared for what happens next and that what does will lead her to change her life again in ways she never could have imagined possible.

These are not The Book I want to leave behind although I intend, if they are recovered to send them off once more to in the hope of publication.

No, because there are some places that are only discovered by the more discerning and adventurous traveller and they are like forgotten doorways into Narnia.




Hollywood Agent

In the back of Carol Blake’s book on getting published she added some witty quotes, this is one of them.

‘Whenever I am asked what kind of writing is the most lucrative I have to say ransom notes.’

I must say the entire book was clearly pitting you against the immense odds that someone would take on a new writer and so this little gem lightened the tone , H.N. Swanson the agent in my title helped us to see the funny side and laugh a little.


The Bay of Angels

mazie blacberry and mix 417              Not to be confused with the French film starring Jeanne Moreau, The Bay of Angels is the short novel by Anita Brookner that introduced me to her work. Drawn by the cover, a paperback  depicting the streets of the old town in Nice and the story in  which  a young woman accompanies her mother as they  leave their dull suburban flat somewhere in an unfashionable part of  London for the South of France, it had too many parallel lines for me to ignore.

Living myself at the time in this region of France as well as being responsible for my own mother who had courageously agreed to uproot from rural England I turned the first few pages with interest. Due to my mothers advanced age and the fact that I was possibly her best option and the only one of her daughters  that mentioned neither a retirement home or threatened too much melodrama she had done the unthinkable and moved to join me at the age of eighty-six.

The mother in the story was so much younger than my own. Having at first naturally identified with the daughter in the story, I was shocked to realize that in fact  her mother was younger than I was myself. It seemed faintly ridiculous that a woman who could not even have reached sixty weakly died in a convent of seemingly nothing at all. I wanted to tell her to get up and pull herself together. While the daughter wandered disconsolately along the shingle beach of the Baie des Anges uncertain of her own happiness I longed for her liberation, for the story to flower into some sort of hope at least for her.

Despite all this I was fascinated, I felt this book was somehow a modest gem and that it held a secret. I collected two more of her books, Hotel du Lac which awarded her the Brooker prize against all odds in 1984 and then Strangers a later novel but she wrote many more.

Anita Brookner died this week at the age of 87. She was both greatly admired and misunderstood by writers as well as critics. A single woman, childless and alone in older age is usually regarded with pity and she herself was childless and never married. Possibly the heroine in Hotel du Lac was a reflection of herself,  but it was not from lack of opportunities but the inability to compromise that their stories ended as they did.

Oddly enough the most positive ending for me was in Strangers. The protagonist, this time an older man goes off to start a new life in Italy, I sighed with relief at the end of the book because to me the alternative ending would have been exactly that, a compromise that I absolutely did not want him to make.

I realize now that all of her stories stemmed from her own loneliness but that it was  not a loneliness to be despised but one to be seen as an inner strength. an ability to transmute that state of being into gold. It is a certain type of courage that is seldom recognized. Mark Lawson, a journalist who writes in the The Guardian wrote of his own experience of her work,

‘The pages which seemed opaque eventually become a mirror.’

We believe and go on for so long believing, in the next room we enter, the next place we find ourselves, at any moment, and then years pass by and we only see it in that mirror. But we also see that poetry comes from this, when there was no one on the road to remind us that we have waited forever.



Reflections on A Spanish Lover

Having seemingly lost all my writing files to the mal function of my external hard drive I have been searching through the jottings in my old note books. I was planning to start once more on the submission game until the unfortunate and I desperately hope, temporary loss of the aforementioned files. In one such salvaged dairy I had apparently started to read Joanna Trollope to discover just what made her so publishable and established in the genre of womans fiction. Agents and publishers alike all seemed to respect her work and consider it a sure-fire bet to produce guaranteed sales in several languages. What, I asked myself was so special about her apparently light weight novels which distinguished them from, well in all modesty, mine for example?

The Spanish Lover was a case in point. The plot was not particularly engrossing, it was her insights into character and what forms and motivates us in the course we take through life that gave me a possible answer as to why she is so well-considered as well as read. This was I realized, what I myself aspired to, and all of it requires frightening honesty from the author, accidental insights into our own innermost and sometimes secret feelings.

At the start of the story she explores the relationship between two sisters. The elder sister has an orderly house,

‘ A monument to her fearsome domestic competence.’

I immediately know this woman, recognize her instantly in my own sister but what followed hit me even harder,

‘Would she exchange her richly domesticated life for her sisters free but lonely one?’ she asks. While the younger sister who is paying one of her rare but none the less inevitable visits between her life of travel admits her own dilemma.

‘You get used to singleness’ she says, ‘to not being essential to someone, but you don’t like being asked about it.’

When she meets the Spanish Lover of the title she is reluctant to admit attraction. Despite her exciting life of challenge  and new experience, her risk taking, she realizes that on a personal level she is profoundly shaped by her background. She is forced to admit even if only to herself that she has, I quote,

‘This English habit of reticence, reluctant to articulate feelings, almost afraid to, like a terrible politeness, a kind of courtesy so self-denying, an affliction that in the end  imprisoned the sufferer.’

I think I came to the conclusion that not only must we identify with at least one or two of the protagonists, and therefore actually care what becomes of them but more importantly find something that moves us forward or inspire us in some way to a better understanding both of ones self and of others.

Developing character and the profound yet effortless revealing of layers of understanding in a single phrase are what gave me the answer to my question about Joanna Trollope. I would not necessarily read her novels but she taught me a lot.

Jungles in Paris

Jungles in Paris, a major retrospective of the work of Henri Rousseau was an exhibition I sadly missed in 2006. It is some brief extracts from his biography I paraphrase below.

His canvas’s sold in the Paris markets really thought of as something to be painted over, consequently one assumes for no money at all. He supplemented his small income with part time jobs and by playing the violin on the streets. It was the young Spaniard Picasso who started buying his pictures and thus drew him into his group of friends.

Apollinaire wrote his epitaph. Brancusi carved it on a tombstone.

‘We salute you gentle Rousseau you can hear us…

Let our luggage pass duty free through the gate of heaven

We will bring you brushes, paints and canvas

That you may spend your sacred leisure in the Light of Truth and Painting

As you did my portrait facing the stars.’

From Henri Rousseau to the Riviera dei Fiori

As I may have mentioned elsewhere I wrote down my first story at the age of twelve, at that time we were living in a large Tudor style house owned by the National Trust. Every room, corridor and staircase was hung with prints of the Masters, a diverse and eclectic collection from Da Vinci and the Dutch Masters to Valacroix ,  Brugal to Munch, Picasso and the Impressionists as well as emerging contemporary painters. This was due to the fact that my father had a subscription that entitled us to one large sized print a month for three years. It was thus that once a marine painter himself, he introduced us to the world of Art.

A Henri Rousseau Jungle print hung at the foot of my bed. Staring into it before lights out and in the gathering dusk of night may possibly have influenced me towards my natural fascination for the exotic. Unlike Rousseau, who famously never left Paris, English born, although like him self taught, I have spent large chunks of my life in Asia and the Pacific.

Even before the age of twelve I was always painting, drawing and colouring in fabulous landscapes that came from nowhere onto the pages of my dairy, scrawling over used envelopes I found lying around or to my teachers exasperation, in the margins of my work books.

In what I call my Impressionist Portraits I try, not to create a photographic likeness but to evoke the sentiments I see expressed in the gaze, women not classically beautiful , somewhat stylized but in whose face I catch a glimpse of the ‘secret person of the heart’. They are always surrounded by flowers. In my flower studies I strive to capture the sometimes hallucinogenic beauty of natures exotic blooms. Orchids for example that seem to have an other worldly life  somewhere between plant and mysterious being.

To quote Henri Rousseau, whose biography I recently discovered:

‘When I go into the glass houses and see the strange plants of exotic lands, it seems to me that I enter into a dream.’

In my case the glass house was at Kew and I like to remember that it was also at the instigation of my father at the age of four. Hoya’s dripping honey scents in the humid heat while leaves dazzling emerald towered above me Oh so very long ago! Yet I am still surrounded by the same strangeness here on the Riviera dei Fiori in Italy where I at present live.


The Go-Between

If you remember the 70’s film starring Julie Christie but never read the book then you missed the brilliance of JP Hartley’s The Go-Between on which the film was based.

I  came across the book in the delightfully eclectic English section of the Bordighera Library here in Italy. Its somewhat dog-eared paper back edition evidently dated from the release of the movie, its cover a still from the film rang bells for me although I had no recollection of either the story or of seeing the movie.

All the tips I read about submitting a manuscript emphasise the importance of the first paragraph, those initial sentences that immediately draw you in. Here the Prologue takes you right in to the dairy of the protagonists youth. Those events he re discovers recorded in the pages form the basis for the book. For me it is outstanding and one of the best first paragraphs  I have read. I laughed ruefully at his comment, his doubts over even bothering to re write and publish it all in story form.

‘I take myself much too seriously of course. What does it matter to anyone what I was like, then or now?’

In fact I laughed often reading the book, his boyish ingenuousness, his artlessness his innocence were sheer delight. Each scene described absorbed transported, the film was in my minds eye perhaps more surely than had I seen the film.

The dedication I quote here resonated so exactly with the project of my own story, the big one I plan to recount, that it was more than coincidence, it bordered on an omen.

‘When you leave this room, which I admit is dull and cheerless, and take the last bus to your home in the past, if you haven’t missed it- ask yourself whether you found everything as radiant as you imagined it. Ask yourself whether you fulfilled your dreams.’

Ideal Book Cover

Henry James and Me

I always found Henry James difficult. I was certain that I should like his books but somehow I started Portrait of a Lady at least three times before I finally got involved after ploughing through several what seemed to me confusing chapters. At this point I was hooked, I began to care about the heroines happiness. There are scenes in Italy that remain in my memory, an attachment therefore formed for me with the writer himself but it was not until I read Colm Toibin’ s book The Master that I began to really understand why.

The way he had been brought up had left him uncertain, Toibin explains. Their fathers rootlessness, by constantly moving, his restlessness. ‘The finding of a haven only to be uprooted, an unfortunate lodging. Not knowing how long it would take him to announce they would soon have to depart.’

This so mirrors my own childhood, my own father that I began to see the writer in a different light. The way this affected his brother and sister differently, the way it affected him.

In later life he chose Rye to settle, the place of his fondest childhood memories of being with his father. In The Master Toibin writes that it took him a while to understand the cause of his unease when  he found the house he wanted to be his home after wandering uneasily throughout his life. He realized he had travelled without hesitation to meet the place of his death, although he would also live there and he dreamed of having continuity and certainty in his days. The house in Rye is where he returned to in the end and lived until his death.

So I go  back now myself to read him, aware the similarities of this could well continue to parallel my own as my own longings are mirrored in those he felt and memories of my own father draw me similarly back to the remembered places I walked with him in childhood.

The further irony of this is that I found the ending to The Portrait of a Lady devastating. I myself have always longed for happy endings, never doubting for one moment, that is until now.