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Current favorite quoteFor any detailed description of the complexity of human nature, of the insurgence of instinct in the garb of reason, of the multifarious play of the social environment on the individual ego, and of the individual ego on the social environment, I ... turn to the novelists and the poets. -- Beatrice Webb, My Apprenticeship
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I.e., NOT in the least bit magnificent.
I try not to succumb to obsessive collecting. I actually don’t need complete matching sets of book series (so what if two of five volumes are paperback?) or any musician’s entire CD/LP/45 output. But today I learned about a permanent installation in the London Underground, and I could feel the obsessive bug nibbling at my fingers.
The installation is Mark Wallinger’s Labyrinth (2013), 270 different labyrinths, one in each of the 270 Tube stations. I’d already noticed a couple here and there during my travels these past 3 weeks, and I’m fascinated by labyrinths, so …
Question: How many could I collect with my camera before boredom or hunger or exhaustion set in?
That’s not very many, just a bit over 5% of the total, but it took 3 hours. Each photo requires exiting the train, finding the labyrinth (which occasionally requires exiting the station — not fair, Wallinger!), taking a photo or two, and then waiting for the next train. Yawn.
Tomorrow I’ll bring a book.
It must be tough to compete for attention with people like Henry James and characters like EF Benson’s Mapp and Lucia. I went to Rye today, specifically to visit the former home of James, Benson and others, but also to look for the house where Joan Aiken first lived. Signs direct one to Lamb House, the EF Benson Society offers a map of Tilling, but information about Joan Aiken’s beginnings is simply not there. A tiny reference to her father, Conrad Aiken, was all there was.
The town is currently a bit discombobulated by film crews and actors being carted around in mini-vans, all for a new production of Mapp and Lucia for the BBC. I saw a young woman in flip-flops, trousers and a psychedelic shirt hoisting a massive umbrella over Diva Plaistow (Felicity Montagu) to keep her costume dry as they walked 50 yards from the van to the church. Grips and camera-people and sound-engineers mingle with tourists just trying to make their way up the cobbled streets.
Like me, most tourists come for Lamb House. The famed Garden Room (if you’ve read Miss Mapp, you know what that is) was destroyed during WWII and not rebuilt. Normally, a wall plaque marks where it once commanded the top of West Street. For the current filming, however, a reproduction is in place — we can see how it might have been for James, Benson and the original occupants, the Thomas Lamb family in the 1700s. A lovely prospect from the house towards the church, and another from the Garden Room towards the town.
And just around the corner: Mermaid Street, one of the poorest areas of Rye in the 1800s but now upscale. I walked slowly down this street, looking carefully for a marker showing Joan Aiken’s house: and found it, a small white circle all but hidden by ivy and virginia creeper. Only her father’s name is listed.
I know there’s nothing particularly magical about authors’ birthplaces. And yet: I still want to see.
Standing outside Jeake’s House (now a pricey B&B with rooms named for Conrad Aiken, Malcolm Lowry and Radclyffe Hall), I looked up at the windows and imagined a young Joan looking out of them. Did she like the name of her street? Did she feel the 300 years of history within those walls? Did she imagine the lives of earlier occupants? Did she ever visit Lamb House and wonder about the authors who had lived there? She might have peered into the Garden Room windows, might have run into EF Benson walking his dog.
That, at any rate, is what I like to imagine.
I’m not a historian. Nor am I an expert in the Middle Ages or the history of Northern Europe. And yet: I’ve set myself a task to write a novel covering nearly 700 years of history, from the 12th to 19th centuries, and from Norway and its Atlantic outposts to York during the Plague years and London just after the Restoration, ending on an ocean beach once belonging to the King of the Western Isles. All because of an exhibit a couple of years ago at the Cloisters.
Since I’m not a historian, my research techniques don’t involve weary slogs through archives [which, I realize, would not be weary to true historians; in fact, I've actually enjoyed an academic paper about archeological digs in Trondheim, including detailed analyses of how combs were made, but I found this online (thank you, Google) and not in the dusty and lonely sub-basement of a library].
My purposes aren’t to get the history right, but to get it interesting (I can feel the historians’ shudders — no fear, I’ll aim for historical accuracy). The article about the combs says nothing about the shrieks of seagulls fighting over rubbish thrown off the back of a fishing boat, nor about the hike up the steep hill to the fort overlooking the harbor, nor the deep silence at night — which actually isn’t what we who live south of the 60th parallel north would call night: it’s simply three hours of twilight between bright or cloudy days. Yet that’s the kind of information a novelist needs. The best way to get that is obvious.
So to Trondheim I journeyed, to get as close as possible to the 12th century town of Nidaros. Some of what I learned:
It’s only 2 hours by plane, from London to Trondheim, across the North Sea and then up the west coast of Norway. The North Sea is notorious for its wild waves and storms, so imagine crossing it in an open boat, one sail and 30 oarsmen. I don’t envy the oarsmen. But Trondheim is well protected from the sea, on the east shore of a fjord that dog-legs southwest to northwest as it feeds into the Sea. The Nidelva (I was told that nid is a Viking expletive), the wide river that outlines two sides of the peninsula on which Nidaros was built, runs quietly down from the hills south of town. At the harbor, with gulls and terns circling overhead, boats full of orange-jacketed tourists motor up, down, and across the fjord, a modern version of the fishing boats that must have sailed daily to net cod, hake, and mackerel.
997 is the year Olaf I (not the St. Olaf) arrived, beheaded some local earls (jarls) and began talking about this new thing called Christianity. Olaf II (no relation, as far as I can tell), died a few decades later in a battle with local farmers, and soon afterwards was canonized.
From about 1100 to 1537, Benedictines living on Monkholmen (an island in the harbor) made their own beer, traded as far away as England. At night, noises from their loud parties echoed across Nidaros. The fort that stands now on the island was built in the 1600s over the ruins of the monastery, so nothing can be seen of building foundations.
Yet while on Monkholmen, I imagined the Benedictines watching building after building rise, including the tower of the Cathedral housing the remains of St. Olaf. Even now, the spire is the highest point in the old city, making it easy to orient oneself. I could also imagine pilgrims following the Nidelva en route to the Cathedral, glimpsing that spire as they came over the last hill blocking their view, and sighing with relief to think they were close to their destination (although I have to wonder how they all got home afterwards — by foot, again?).
Almost nothing of Nidaros remains. Built almost entirely of wood (even the streets), it has died several times in fires. The narrow alleys (veita) give a hint of the close-set buildings and maze-like streets of a medieval town, but it took a visit to the NTNU Natural History Museum to understand that those ancient streets would have been crowded not just with people, but with sounds and odors: pigs, goats and poultry wander at will; a mother croons lullabies to her baby behind the room where her craftsman husband stokes a fire; a leather worker talks to himself at the window where a shutter folds down to act as workbench in his 4′ x 7′ workspace.
OK, it’s isn’t actual time travel, but it’s as close as I suspect I’ll ever get. And it’s enough.
I’m cheating a bit here, with brief notes on what I’ve been reading, in between packing for summer vacation.
For those of you interested in the history of cooking and eating, here’s a book not about food, but about implements: pots, peelers, graters, timers, ovens, and so on. Bee Wilson’s Consider the Fork (2012) takes us from wood fires to four-slot toasters, from fingers to forks, from wooden sticks to wire whisks. Wilson makes some excellent points about how “progress” may in fact be the opposite. Post-WWII efforts to equip kitchens with labor-saving devices served only to tie women more closely to the room that men rarely entered. Wilson also notes the changes made possible by new technologies (yogurt consumption increases, recipe books get written). There are also surprising tales, such as the one about our overbite, and another about can openers.
For something completely different, try Colin Meloy’s Wildwood Chronicles (3 vols, 2011-2014, illustrated by Carson Ellis). Set in Portland, Oregon, it tells the story of the Wildwood, an expanse of dense woods west of the Willamette River, protected by a magical boundary few can pass. When Prue’s baby brother is kidnapped by a murder of crows, she and Curtis give chase and find themselves embroiled in a political uprising setting foxes against every other animal and human in the Wildwood, all of whom speak. I have to decide now whether to pack the immense 3rd volume or save it for my return. (PS: If Meloy’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s the singer/songwriter/guitarist for the indy group, the Decemberists.)
Finally, there’s Roz Chast‘s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (2013). Chast, long-time cartoonist for The New Yorker and perhaps the funniest woman alive, has already published collections of her cartoon art and a couple of kids’ books. As far as I know, this is her first memoir. It follows the physical decline and deaths of her parents, over the course of a few years, starting funny as hell (see the title) and ending still funny but also sad, especially for anyone who’s parents are heading into the same final years. The title is a comment Chast’s mother makes, when Chast starts asking about their plans for, well, you know: when IT happens. Chast’s parents are the opposite of the townspeople of La Crosse, Wisconsin (NPR’s Planet Money report here).
In fact, most of us are the opposite of those enlightened Wisconsinites. Perhaps Chast’s memoir can help open up those conversations, if only to avoid that scene of the daughter abandoning all her parents belongings to a dumpster because she can’t face sorting through everything.
Summer reading to include George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Julian Barnes’ Nothing to Be Frightened Of, a bit of Mapp and Lucia (while I make a trip to Rye/Tilling), and who can say what else.
Happy summer to my readers! Happy reading to all!
A quick tip of the hat to the incomparable Doug Adams, whose works I’m rereading before I head off on my summer sojourn. Here are 2 examples of one of his favored devices (antanaclasis), both from volume I of H²G²:
“It’s unpleasantly like being drunk.” “What’s so unpleasant about being drunk?” “You ask a glass of water.”
“Come now or you will be late.” “Late?” said Arthur. “What for?” “What is your name, human?” “Dent. Arthur Dent,” said Arthur. “Late, as in the late Dentarthurdent.”
This post’s title is what Lockhart wrote when she signed my copy of We Were Liars at her book launch last night.
I’m usually willing to comply with authors’ requests, but any lie I told would be a tip off to the truth, because you’d know I was lying.
So: two truths and a lie (your task is to spot which is which).
1. At last night’s book launch, Lockhart had TRY written on the back of her right hand, and AGAIN on the back of her left. She was quirky, lively, at times silly, and never uncool. She was happy to sign not just my copy of this book, but also my copy of Disreputable History (on which she added “WOOF” in a speech bubble coming from the basset hound’s mouth). She is funny, but she can also be serious. Her summer reading list includes AS Byatt’s The Children’s Book. She said that when she reads Byatt, she doubts her own writing abilities. I’m not alone! (Although, true confession, I get those doubts when I read anything.)
2. We Were Liars contains shout-outs to Diana Wynne Jones, Jaclyn Moriarty, Shakespeare, and other authors. Cady, the protagonist, reads widely, but not obsessively. It’s Gat, the outsider in Cady’s all-white world, who sets himself the task of reading every book on a list of 100 greatest novels. On Beechwood Island, privately owned by Cady’s grandfather and where her extended family spends each summer, there is no library, so Gat has to scrounge books from the family homes and Martha’s Vineyard whenever they leave Beechwood. We never learn how he manages during the school year, when he’s back in NYC. Cady lives in Vermont with her divorced mother (dad’s in Colorado) and never hears from Gat or her cousins when they’re off the island. Kids!
3. I hated this book. Don’t read it.
OK, perhaps that was too easy. Here’s what I can tell, without revealing too much. Cross King Lear with Jacob Grimm, modernize it with a touch of Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, add a third generation of grandchildren and isolated summers in a type of Eden. Sprinkle with wealth and privilege. Then throw in an exotic outsider (Gat) during the 8th summer and see what happens over the next several years. In a word: Wow!
I’m not lying. Cross my heart.
Speaking of lies and liars, I’m reminded of this classic scene from Werner Herzog’s Kaspar Hauser: