Review of Veronica Raimo’s “The Girl at the Door” for EurolitNet’s #RivetingReviews

Image of review of The Girl at the Door

The July 2019 edition of the European Literature Network‘s #Riveting Reviews is out today. My review is of Veronica Raimo’s “The Girl at the Door” (4th Estate). Bold stylistic choices give a sharp edge to this novel. This is unsettling, thought-provoking work.

The Girl at the Door is in tune with the concerns of the #MeToo movement, but Raimo began writing the novel years before its rise. The book is relevant also to other burning issues. It highlights the question of the failure to see clearly and to seek dialogue not only at a personal level but at a societal one, especially in the age of social media, when views of history and the present seem to polarise around extremes.

This is a book which challenges you to work hard and which amply rewards you for it: a gripping read in its own right, and fiction that enhances our engagement with the world. Highly recommended.

Click here for free access to the full review.

 

Art in fiction: ‘high’ and ‘low’ art?

Extract from Jane Davis's series on art in fiction
Extract from Jane Davis’s series on art in fiction

Jane Davis today continues her inspiring series on Art in Fiction with contributions from three guests: Kate Rigby, Jenny Harper and me. I’m grateful to Jane for her invitation. I’ve long been fascinated by the uses and effects of art in creative writing – my research into them goes back years and continues, and my own fiction incorporates arts and artefacts – so it’s always a joy to be able to share that interest with others. Click here to read the article.

My contribution to Jane’s article focuses on the topic of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art: how helpful do I personally find that distinction? What purposes do art and artefacts serve in my fiction, especially in That Summer in Puglia?  Kate Rigby considers the related question of ‘art snobbery’, widening its scope from the visual arts to novels, and explaining why she doesn’t like strict genre classifications. Jenny Harper illustrates art’s redemptive power with an extract from People We Love.

For other articles in Jane Davis’s series, click here.

Happy reading!

 

Riveting reads

 

The European Literature Network champions international literature – if you aren’t already aware of its activity, do check out its website.

Every month, its Riveting Reviews section features reviews of (mainly) European literature – mostly of works recently translated into English. It also offers a Riveting Reads section, consisting of brief (only a few lines long) recommendations of a wider range of books, including fiction and non-fiction not yet available in English translation, as well as texts published years ago.

My recent full-length ‘Riveting Review’ was of Antoine Laurain’s ‘Smoking Kills’ (see here). My July ‘Riveting Reads’ are focused on works by Italian authors: ‘The Little Virtues’ by Natalia Ginzburg; ‘Nessuno Puo’ Volare’ by Simonetta Agnello Hornby; and ‘Le 10 Parole Latine che Raccontano il Nostro Mondo’ by Nicola Gardini. I hope you’ll enjoy reading about them and about all the other intriguing titles chosen by my fellow contributors.

Image credits:

Image of ‘Riveting Reads’ from the European Literature Network website.

 

 

 

 

Writing as a second career?

A Haig-Davies, G Keegan, V Vescina (1)
Panel on career change, Sloan Summit 2018

Following the publication of my debut novel, That Summer in Puglia, I’m regularly asked how I made the transition from a career in management to one in writing. The question may come from a reader at a book signing or in a message via social media; those asking it typically work in a business role and tell me they’ve always loved to write.

This post is not an attempt at an exhaustive answer, which would defeat me. Instead, I hope it will provide some helpful points to consider. My reflections have been sparked by a recent event, the Sloan Summit at London Business School to celebrate 50 years of the Sloan MSc Programme there. At the Summit, leadership and change expert Alison Haig-Davies interviewed Gillian Keegan MP and me about our paths to career transformation. All three of us are graduates of the Sloan MSc in Management at London Business School (the course is also available at MIT and Stanford), though from different years. While my fellow speaker’s activity is not in the arts, the points below about self-knowledge, humility, serendipity, resilience and gratitude were vital to both of us, so I hope they’ll be valuable to others.

A Haig-Davies, G Keegan, V Vescina (2)
Alison Haig-Davies, Gillian Keegan MP, Valeria Vescina
  • Career or vocation?

With writing, are we talking of a career at all? Most published writers do not earn enough from their books for that to be their only activity. Many hold other jobs: as teachers and critics, for example, but also in very different areas. I write literary fiction and for me that has the compelling nature of the vocation. I’m also a literary and opera reviewer, a creative-writing teacher and a board member of an arts festival.

  • Self-knowledge

Consider what the true constants in your life are: the ones which feel ‘deeply you’. For me these include a combination of artistic creativity and structured thinking, and a lifelong love of the arts. My roles in management involved mostly strategy and organisational behaviour work (both disciplines require more creative thinking than many realise, and lots of writing); and I grew up in a family steeped in the arts (my mother an art historian, my father an art dealer), so they always remained an active passion.

  • Humility

I’m one of countless people who have always read voraciously and ‘written well’. But I was conscious that there was much to learn, to be able to write novels: every profession takes years of study and practice. So I started out by attending a no-pressure creative writing course once a week for some months. The feedback was encouraging and I continued drafting short stories and taking part in a writing group. Eventually, I had a portfolio of fiction, on the strength of which I was admitted to the Goldsmiths MA in Creative & Life Writing. I felt that an MA was the most effective way for me to move up the learning curve. At that point I had no expectations about where it would lead – I embarked on it because I really loved writing stories and wanted to be able to communicate what I deeply care about to the best of my ability. I also trusted in the power of serendipity: you do your utmost to be good at what you’ve chosen and when opportunities present themselves you’ll be ready to embrace them.

  • Resilience

I accepted from the outset that it’s difficult to get traditionally published and that rejections of my manuscript were to be expected in the process of finding ‘a home’ for it – and that it was quite possible it wouldn’t. But even before then – in the course of writing the novel – I had to be open to others’ constructive criticism: being defensive about your work (whatever your field) doesn’t do much to improve it. I also assumed that writing the kind of literary novels I had in mind, and getting published, would take years – and it did.

  • Gratitude

The process I’ve described requires being sustained by others at different junctures and in a variety of ways. I’m sure that writers convinced of their own genius must exist somewhere – lucky them…! Most of us might instead give up along the way, were it not for the belief in us by those whose judgement we trust: in my case, a couple of friends well versed in literature and philosophy, tutors on the MA, fellow MA students… My writing group, composed of other Goldsmiths graduates, has been and is invaluable: we workshop our pieces in an atmosphere of mutual trust, and have become close friends. And what to say of the generosity of the writers and film director who endorsed the novel? And how about the friends and family whose support takes many forms? And the publisher who made the book ‘happen’? And the authors and journalists who compèred the debut events? This might give you a sense of how many people an author is grateful to and for…! At the same time, when you think about it, that holds true for most lives.

I hope the sharing of these thoughts will be helpful to you and to others you may know who are considering a new career – whether in writing or in other realms. To you all, my warmest wishes.

Valeria Vescina, Sloan Summit 2018
Valeria Vescina, Sloan Summit 2018, London Business School

Image credits:

Images courtesy of Sloan Summit 2018 and Mike Pearce of Mike Pearce Photography. Reproduced with kind permission.

Review of Antoine Laurain’s “Smoking Kills”

ELNet review of A. Laurain

My latest piece for The European Literature Network‘s #RivetingReviews is on Antoine Laurain’s “Smoking Kills”, recently translated into English by Louise Rogers-Lalaurie for Gallic Books.

This short novel grips the reader with sharp satire and with a plot hovering between the realistic and the hilariously bizarre. French humour noir at its best.

Click here to read the review.

Riveting literature from the Baltics

The Baltics Riveter

In April, the European Literature Network published The Baltics Riveter, a compendium of writing about contemporary fiction from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Publication coincided with this year’s country focus on the Baltics at London Book Fair, where the magazine was widely distributed and enthusiastically received. It contains historical notes, reviews and extracts of some very exciting literature.

The Baltics Riveter is now available also in digital form here. This is the fourth of the European Literature Network’s Riveters. The first was devoted to literature from Poland, on the occasion of the 2017 London Book Fair’s Polish focus. The second, on literature from Russia, coincided with ELNet’s Russian events at the British Library. In The Nordic Riveter of October 2017, five countries were represented: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland.

Review of Burning Cities

 

I normally review English-language editions of novels originally written in Italian, German and French, the languages and cultures I grew up with. But the editor of The Riveter asked whether I might review Estonian author Kai Aareleid’s Burning Cities, translated by Adam Cullen (Peter Owen Publishers, 2018). I’m very grateful for the suggestion: the novel weaves a powerful domestic tale within the larger tapestry of seven decades of Estonian history; most of the story unfolds in the years during which the country was part of the Soviet Union. You can find my article on pp. 58 and 59 of the magazine, or here. I hope it will encourage you to discover Kai Aareleid’s work and more of the riveting literature from the region.

Image credits:

Images courtesy of The European Literature Network.

 

The latest ‘Riveter’ is here!

THE NORDIC RIVETER - Cover

In October this year, the European Literature Network published The Nordic Riveter, a compendium of writing about contemporary Nordic fiction in English translation. It’s available in bookshops, embassies, universities, libraries and arts organisations – and now also for download from http://www.eurolitnetwork.com/the-nordic-riveter-to-download/ . Whether you are a ‘Nordic Noir’ addict, a newbie to literature from the region, or are curious to discover its different strands and what they offer, you’ll find much to inspire and inform your reading.

This is the third of the European Literature Network’s Riveters. The first was devoted to literature from Poland, on the occasion of the 2017 London Book Fair’s Polish focus. The second, on literature from Russia, coincided with ELNet’s Russian events at the British Library. This time, five countries are represented: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland.

I normally review English-language editions of novels originally written in Italian, German and French, the languages and cultures I grew up with. But the editor of The Nordic Riveter asked whether I might take a look at Finnish author Johanna Sinisalo’s The Core of the Sun, which had come highly recommended. I’m very grateful for his suggestion: the book is highly engaging and thought-provoking. You can find my review here: http://www.eurolitnetwork.com/rivetingreviews-valeria-vescina-reviews-the-core-of-the-sun-by-johanna-sinisalo/. I hope it will intrigue you and encourage you to discover this and more of the literature discussed in The Nordic Riveter.

the-core-of-the-sun-682x1024

 

Image credits:

All images from the European Literature Network website.

 

What does ‘portrait’ mean?

#RivetingReview on Antoine Laurain

 

It was such a pleasure to write an article on Antoine Laurain’s The Portrait (Gallic Books, 2017) for the September issue of the European Literature Network‘s #RivetingReviews. You can find my review here.

The length and writing style of this novella might, at first, suggest a quick read, but take your time and you’ll be rewarded.  Laurain has reflected on the many profound meanings of the words ‘portrait’ and ‘collecting’, and distilled those thoughts into a literary creation of exquisite grace. Witty, whimsical, poignant, thought-provoking… Highly recommended.

 

Poetry and Song – Paul Muldoon and Johannes Brahms

 

What connects the names of a present-day poet and of a nineteenth-century composer?  The answer is: their insights into the setting of words to music.  The connection transpired by chance: a statement by Paul Muldoon at the recent launch of his book of song lyrics, Sadie and the Sadists (Eyewear Publishing), at Rough Trade East; and a quote I read while carrying out research into a Brahms song cycle, Die Schöne Magelone, prior to reviewing a memorable performance of it by Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber at Wigmore Hall.  Only eleven days separated the book launch and the music recital.  The remarks made by Muldoon and Brahms were nearly one hundred and forty years apart and yet arrestingly similar.

It started with a question for Muldoon from the audience: how does the process of writing poems differ for him from that of drafting song lyrics?  His answer was that a stand-alone poem has to be perfected to say exclusively in words all it aims to communicate, while the writing of lyrics requires leaving ‘space’ for expression through music.  Muldoon is one of the most celebrated poets in the English language (his accolades include the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the T.S. Eliot Prize, professorships at Oxford and Princeton…), and an admirably approachable and engaging person.  He isn’t afraid of experimentation, and has written lyrics for music composed and performed by various artists (loosely affiliated under the banner of ‘Rogue Oliphant’) across diverse genres, from folk to punk rock.  He says that, as a poet, words come to him before the music, of which he mostly suggests the broad genre and type of beat.

A few days after Muldoon’s talk, whilst researching Die Schöne Magelone I discovered that Brahms’ criterion for selecting poems to turn into songs was that they should leave room for music to enhance them; if they did not, he sometimes altered the original texts.  Although he (like Schubert, Schumann and others) did turn poems by the likes of Goethe, Heine and Rückert into Lieder, he found that many of Goethe’s, for example, could be ‘so perfect in themselves that no music can improve them’.  He sought out poems that, above all, evoked a mood and emotions; he read them aloud repeatedly, until the form, rhythm and meter of a song emerged.  Lieder were ‘art songs’ (‘Kunstlieder’): interpreting them properly requires flawless vocal technique, and the accompaniment is equally complex.  However, at a purely melodic level they often have a ‘singability’ which betrays their roots in ‘Volkslieder’ – popular music – and which for a time made them a common focus of amateur performance and entertainment in bourgeois homes.  As the late Eric Sams pointed out, Brahms was ‘so steeped in that [‘volkstümliches Kunstlied’] tradition, that his songs became not only popular music but ‘folksong’ in his own lifetime, like ‘Wiegenlied’.’  It’s a reminder that fluidity and exchange between ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture at their best can be mutually fruitful, but also that poetry and music have accompanied each other for thousands of years before Brahms.

 

How appropriate and wonderful, therefore, not only that a great poet should be presenting his book of song lyrics – and at Rough Trade – but also that his remarks should echo those of a great composer: it’s not that lyrics are lesser creations than poems, but that, when they are also poetry, they differ in exactly the way Muldoon and Brahms highlighted, for the fusion of music and word to yield a powerful experience.

Of course, not everyone starts with the words.  Paul Simon famously begins with the music, for which he writes verses which could be, and often are, regarded as poetry – though he is adamant they are lyrics and not poems because of the key role played by the music’s rhythm: ‘They’re meant to be sung’.  As an English Lit graduate, his talent and skill for both music and words may merge in the creative process he humbly describes as ‘a mystery’, resulting in their widespread perception as ‘poetry’, whether the texts are labelled ‘lyrics’ or ‘poems’: what’s striking is that the boundary is sufficiently blurred to give rise to the issue of defining it.  After all, only last year Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature ‘for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’.  His June 2017 acceptance speech ends with Homer’s verse: ‘Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.’  And what to say of Leonard Cohen?  He was a poet and a novelist before becoming a singer.  His book, Stranger Music (Jonathan Cape), consists both of poems and lyrics, inviting reflection on their similarities and differences.

Months ago, at a Royal College of Music vocal masterclass, the baritone Sir Thomas Allen advised young singers to nurture a lifelong habit of reciting poetry aloud, to guard against prioritising beauty of sound over the interpretation of the words.  It’s such a fine balance.  Whether the song is by Brahms or Cohen, text and music have been sensitively chosen, shaped and polished into an integrated entity which transcends its constituent parts, to reach us with a power both ancient and new.

Image credits:

Photo of Paul Muldoon by the author. All rights reserved.

Johannes Brahms around 1866. Author unknown.  Reproduced under Public Domain license.

Sadie and the Sadists book cover: design and typeset by Edwin Smet; photograph by Alija (Getty Images).  Reproduced by kind permission of Eyewear Publishing.

Die Schöne Magelone, Volksbücher Nr. 5, von Gotthard Oswald Marbach (Leipzig, 1838-1849). Illustration by Ludwig Richter.

Image of author’s review of Die Schöne Magelone from Seen And Heard International website.

Alcaeus and Sappho, Brygos painter, Side A of an Attic red-figure kalathos, ca. 470 BC. From Akragas (Sicily). Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich.  Reproduced under Public Domain license.

What can writers learn from a composer?

There’s a lot to be said for taking on assignments out of your comfort zone.  The task of reviewing Janáček’s Jenůfa was one such for me, as I’m more familiar with the Italian and German repertoires than with the Czech one.  I had seen other Janáček operas, but not this one.  So off I trotted to the Royal College of Music Library.  What I discovered there about Jenůfa and Janáček’s subsequent operas was so riveting that I ended up spending days reading through the books available – far from enough, for sure, to make a Janáček expert, but plenty to spur me to share those exciting discoveries with fellow-writers.

Leos Janacek ca. 1890

Leos Janáček, ca. 1890

I had come across Milan Kundera’s admiration of this composer years ago in his The Art of the Novel and Encounter essays, but understood it better only after my RCM Library research – as there are helpful parallels between Janáček’s compositional process and aspects of literary fiction.  So what might Janáček (b. 1854 – d. 1928) teach us as writers?  Here are a few thoughts.  If you have more, please feel welcome to add them in the comments section below or here.

  1. Let go of ‘automatisms’

Experiment freely, especially in the early stages of your project: seek the form which will do justice to your vision of that particular novel or short story.  Trusting our intuition about key writing decisions (e.g. structure, point of view, voice) may not come easily, but over-reliance on the “dos and don’ts” of technique can work against a story’s emotional power.  For example, deciding which word is or isn’t earning its place in a sentence will depend on a narrator/character’s personality, back story, state of mind…  Janáček had mastered traditional composition but realized some of its rules would have detracted from the emotional truth of the drama.  Similarly, he had studied local folk music for decades, but the Moravian dances in the opera are his own invention, the fruit of his ‘absorption’ of the raw material.

  1. A well-chosen motif enriches the reading experience

From the opening bars of Jenůfa, the xylophone provides the recurring motif of the mill’s waterwheel: does it signify time ticking by? Or the inexorability of events? Or the flowing of each character’s actions into one tragedy?  Maybe any or all of these.  It’s a reminder that motifs ideally have two qualities: yes, they offer some insights into the story; but their plurality of meaning reflects the ambiguities of existence lived in the present without the benefit of hindsight.  By inviting questions more than providing answers, they engage readers, creating private space for their own perspectives and interpretations.

  1. The individuality of each character’s speech is all-important

We’ve all heard about paying heed to the individuality of each character’s speech, both direct and indirect, but Janáček went to extraordinary lengths to achieve that effect in Jenůfa and subsequent operas.  He was one of the first composers to use a libretto in prose (his own, derived from a play by Gabriela Preissová) and not in verse.  In the text and music, he strived to capture reality: by creating the impression (by mimicking, not replicating – see the section on “speech melody” in the review of Grange Park Opera’s recent Jenůfa) of the impact of characters’ emotional states on their utterances, moment by moment; by prioritising dramatic truth over melodic beauty.  He was unafraid of the resulting contrasts and contradictions within and between characters.  The outcome is an intensely believable evolution of his protagonists and their relationships.  The process and its effects illustrate every writer’s balancing act between the attractions of euphony and the ‘truth’ of characters who at times might demand ‘ugliness’ of expression.

Seen And Heard International

  1. Local can mean universal

Jenůfa demonstrates the enduring validity of the mantra that the more locally rooted a story is, the more universal it feels.  That’s because of the specificity of the ‘framework’ within which the characters move: it enables authors to dramatize situations arising out of the tension between the community (e.g. conditions and belief system) and individuals’ inner worlds.

  1. Let themes emerge by themselves

Jenůfa is ‘about’ many things.  Different productions may highlight one of them but don’t cancel out the others.  By and large, any opera, play, novel, short story… which engages with one universal theme is inevitably engaging with other themes too, due to their interconnectedness and complexity.  Trust them to emerge of their own accord.  The reasons for this are set out nowhere better than in Orhan Pamuk’s The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist and David Lodge’s The Practice of Writing: they both explain why ‘you discover what it is you have to say in the process of saying it’ – and why, in any event, it will be ‘read by different readers in a bewildering variety of ways’ (Lodge, ‘The Novel as Communication’, in The Practice of Writing).

  1. The order in which characters appear isn’t a given

Time and again, authors say the suggestion from a writing colleague, agent or editor to alter the order of scenes or chapters made a vital difference to the final manuscript.  That opportunity is most obviously open when the story is not recounted in strict chronological sequence.  It’s not as easy to remember that the order in which characters make their entrance is flexible even in stories told in that sequence – and how greatly it matters.  Jenůfa exemplifies it: in the original play, the mayor and his family appear early on; Janáček’s decision not to show them until the opera’s final act – even though he has mentioned them earlier on – heightens the contrast between the central couple’s hard-earned depth of understanding and the shallowness of the community’s moral conventions, personified by the mayor’s wife and daughter.  In other words, the tension between the external ‘framework’ and the internal worlds not only is sustained, but rises to a high pitch until shortly before the curtain’s close.

If this post has piqued your curiosity about Janáček and Jenůfa, DVDs of several productions are available online.  In the UK, Jenůfa is currently being performed at Grange Park Opera (until 8 July 2017).

Image credits:

Leos Janáček ca. 1890, author unknown. Reproduced under Public Domain License.

Image of review of Janáček’s Jenůfa from Seen and Heard International website.