An Interlude

One of the exercises in The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron is to go for a week without reading. Impossible! I thought the first time I tried it. Yet I have found value in periodically emptying my mind of other people's words.

I listen to the frogs at night and the birds in the morning. I check out the trees that have fallen or died since last year. I see that new moss has grown over parts of the path, and the ladies' slippers are blooming. I count the goslings being taught the trail between the ponds by their proud parents. Because the ponds are very high this year, the logs that make a crude bulkhead are under water, accelerating their decay. I cannot put any weight on them.

Some things are unchanged: the ruddy sky reflected on the water, the rustle of pine needles in the wind, the tapping of rain on the roof. I sweep spiderwebs from the corners and mouse droppings from behind the books.

Shakespeare wrote of “tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,/Sermons in stones, and good in everything.” There are stories enough here for me. This week, anyway.

Bleeding Heart Square, by Andrew Taylor

I’ve read and enjoyed several of Taylor’s mysteries. I mostly enjoyed this one too, though I did encounter a problem for which I don’t have a solution.

Set in London in 1934, the book conjures up not so much the Jazz Age as the seedy miasma of Dickens’s stories. In the opening scene, Lydia Langstone abandons her upper-class life after a brutal encounter with her husband, taking little with her besides a copy of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of Her Own and some jewelry that she had inherited.

The plot centers around Bleeding Heart Square, off a dank and ill-lit alley, where Lydia has taken refuge with her the father she has never known, in a house run by the mysterious and sinister Mr. Serridge. The house had been owned by a middle-aged spinster, Miss Penhow, excerpts of whose diary preface each chapter. Also haunting the square are a plainclothes policeman who is on a mission, a seamstress who knows more than she’s saying, a beadle at the Catholic church who stands too close to Lydia, and Rory Wentwood who is engaged to Miss Penhow’s niece, Fenella.

With our attention focused on the fate of the missing Miss Penhow, Taylor slips in a number of subplots, including one about the competing claims of the early Communist Party and the British Union of Fascists. The book is beautifully structured, moving between different characters and their stories, but always coming back to the square and Miss Penhow’s diary. Knowing that the plot is based on a real murder that the author heard about as a child adds an extra frisson of appeal.

My problem came with some of the characters, who did not behave as I expected them to. Of course, multi-dimensional characters are a good thing; nothing can kill a story faster than a character who is just a cliche. However, the behavior of some of the characters just didn’t seem to fit, making my suspension of disbelief begin to slip. For example, Lydia’s husband—rich, powerful, possessive, jealous, self-centered—does not try to force her back to his home, or have her committed as insane, or any of the other ways men controlled their wives in that time. He just leaves her in her father’s squalid flat. To mention other examples would be to give away too much of the plot, but these characters took me out of the story as I wondered why they felt so wrong. Of course, I could just be missing some obvious pointers that would have explained their behavior.

Dealing with a reader’s expectations about a character is a problem I’ve encountered in my own writing and one for which I don’t have a solution. It seems as though one ought to be able to lay enough clues for the reader to forestall those expectations, but I’m not quite sure how to do that. I’ll have to go back over what I’ve read and find a good example to study. Perhaps Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet. He manages to make stock characters both unusual and utterly believable.

Overall, the book is still a good read and has given me a some things to ponder.

March Violets, by Philip Kerr

“March violets” is a derogatory term for those Germans who, after Hitler’s ascension to power, suddenly became ardent supporters of National Socialism. This detective novel, the first in Kerr’s Berlin Noir trilogy, takes place in 1936 as the city prepares to host the Olympics by hiding the more egregious evidence of policies attacking Jews and others considered undesirable.

Ex-policeman Bernie Gunther has set up as a private investigator. In the best noir tradition, he works alone from a small office and regards the moral poverty of his clients and the government with cynical amusement. Many of his cases involve searching for missing persons, usually Jews, whose families are desperate for news of them. Bernie is not a Nazi but is careful of what he says and does, observing the necessary forms: the salutes, the chants of “Heil, Hitler”.

Hired by a wealthy industrialist whose daughter and son-in-law have been murdered, Bernie’s assignment is to recover a valuable diamond necklace that was stolen from a safe in the couple’s bedroom. His investigation leads him into cabarets, police interrogation rooms, the clutches of a couple of femmes fatale, and a seat at the Olympics to watch Jesse Owens compete. He finds a conspiracy that seems to involve low-level criminals, officials like Goering and Himmler, and possibly even his own client.

I’m grateful to my friend Steve for recommending this author. Admittedly, I was skeptical of how the historical context would play out and, as Steve warned, it is a little odd to have these monsters of history wandering in and out of the story. The description of the atmosphere of pre-war Berlin and the political nuances of the insidious spread of Nazism are among the best things in the book.

My only quibble comes towards the end. In one too many plot twists, Bernie is briefly sent to Dachau. As a privileged prisoner, he observes the suffering of others and, when he can, tries to alleviate it. The scenes in the concentration camp are passed over quickly—descriptive and moving, yes, but not given the attention such a significant situation demands.

The concept of emotional weight was brought home to me a few years ago. I’d written a number of short stories about single mothers, skipping quickly over the reason for the absent husband/father. Yet every critique group honed in on that brief dismissal as a flaw, wanting to know more about the divorce or death or desertion. I was dismayed because this backstory was not relevant to the story I wanted to tell. I began to suspect that the only stories we were allowed to tell about women were love stories.

However, I finally understood that it was the emotional weight of these events that was pulling my stories askew. Death and divorce are huge life changes and not something to be dismissed in a sentence. By mentioning them, I was inviting the reader to participate in them emotionally. As one workshop leader said, “Do not set up a door for the reader unless you are going to open it.”

In Kerr’s book, the emotional weight of the concentration camp distorts the rest of the story. As a reader, I could not be satisfied with a few brief scenes of camp life before being returned to the streets of Berlin and the “larger” puzzle. It felt wrong to me. Kerr might have done better not to go there at all. Still, March Violets is the first of the series, so much can be forgiven. The noir aspects work surprisingly well; the characters are strong; and the plot (other than my one quibble) excitingly torturous. I will certainly try some of his other books.

Being Dead, by Jim Crace

My father used to say that when he died, we should just cram his body into a garbage bag and put it out with the trash. As a doctor, he knew about all the goopy things that our pretty skins hide. He was accustomed to the idea that after death our bodies retain nothing of the animating spirit that once looked out of our eyes, and believed that dead bodies should be discarded without sentimental references to the person they once held.

We don’t like to think about death. Hard as it is to believe in our own death, it is even harder to envision what is happening to our deceased loved ones’ bodies, the way they are putrefying and disintegrating in the ground, just like the burst-open deer by the roadside or the blackened potatoes in the bin. If you don’t believe in heaven and hell, or paradise, or reincarnation, then all you have is this life. This brief, unrehearsed life.

In this short novel Crace makes us look at death. Coolly and unsentimentally, he opens with the bodies of two middle-aged zoologists, murdered in the dunes of a remote beach, and describes the effects of sun and rain, beetles and flies. Braided into this dispassionate report are several other stories. One starts from the murder and retraces the couple’s steps backwards through the hours of that fatal day. Another tells the story of how Joseph and Celice first met, at that same beach, and how they first came together, cradled by those same dunes. Yet another story goes forward in time, as their estranged daughter is alerted that they are missing and begins to search for them.

I should have hated this. I am usually irritated by stories that jump around in time or person, much less both together. It is a tribute to Crace’s writing that these shifts never disturb the flow of his story; each seems like the most natural progression in the world. With each shift, he quickly locates us in the appropriate story, sometimes with a person’s name, sometimes by actually providing a heading with the date and time. In the description of the book on Crace’s website, it’s mentioned that these stories moving forwards and backwards in time mimic the movement of tides, which I think may contribute to their easy transitions. Also, and I don’t mean this in a bad way, the shifts came just as I was ready to move on. The descriptions of the bodies, while scientific, are beautiful in their own way; they are almost poetic, not just by the close attention to detail but by the quality of the language. Yet there’s only so long that I want to read about ants and maggots. Also, as quirky and interesting as the two zoologists and their daughter are, I found it hard to care about them. Moving between storylines kept me from getting impatient with the characters.

The writing is brilliant, as I’ve said. Even without caring about Joseph and Celice, I found their story powerful, especially what they found to love in each other and the adjustments they made to accommodate each other during their long marriage. At the moment of his death, Joseph reaches out and takes hold of Celice’s ankle. That tenuous and tender connection, which remains throughout the book, reminded me of something I saw in a private chapel at Lullingstone Castle in Kent: statues of a man and a woman, lying on their separate tombs, yet in the space between, their hands joined. Later, reading Philip Larkin’s poem “An Arundel Tomb”, I wondered if this was perhaps a more common funerary motif than I’d thought. Looking at Crace’s website, I see that John Banville, in his review of the book, also was reminded of Larkin’s poem. It’s absurd that such a small gesture should be so moving, yet I was moved.

I was reminded too of Kevin Brockmeier’s novel A Brief History of the Dead which I blogged about a few years ago. The story takes place in the land of the dead, a kind of purgatory, where people remain until the last person who knew them or remembered them dies, suggesting that our immortality consists of the memories we leave behind. Crace’s book does not offer the idea of purgatory or any kind of afterlife to take the sting out of death, but by recounting the story of Joseph and Celice’s life together, he gives their going a kind of grace.

When my father went, we did not put him out with the trash. We held a memorial service where my brother recounted family stories while wearing a cap emblazoned with “See Rock City”. Then we buried my father next to his parents. Such rituals may be a sham—and a waste of good compost—but they were a comfort to my mother. Then again, we grown children disrupted the interment with a snowball fight, so all was not lost.

Collected Poems 1090-1962, by T. S. Eliot

I haven’t read much of Eliot’s poetry since my schooldays, though I did spend some time studying the “Four Quartets” a few years ago, curious as to why the poem as a whole did not stick in my mind the way “The Wasteland”, for example, did. In preparing to lead a discussion of Eliot’s poetry for our local poetry group, I did reread this collection, along with some critical essays on his work.

Although I’ve always appreciated Eliot’s poetry—the range of thought behind it, the attempt to address great themes, the individual lines that one can never forget—I can’t say that it has moved me deeply. An exception is this remembered section from “Little Gidding” that had sent me back to the “Four Quartets”:

And what the dead had no speech for, when living,

They can tell you, being dead: the communication

Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

Not to sound like a character out of the tv series Lost, but speaking with the dead, speaking for the dead, has been an obsession of mine for some years. Perhaps obsession is too strong a word, but certainly an obligation. What I found in rereading this collection was a short poem that affected me as though the dead were in truth speaking to me: “Rannoch, by Glencoe”. You can read it here:,-by-glencoe.html

I don’t recall having read it before, but coming as I do from a long line of MacDonalds, I am shocked that I might have skipped over or forgotten anything referring to Glencoe. The Massacre of Glencoe lives on in the minds of MacDonalds; one has only to read Alistair MacLeod’s excellent short stories and novel to see its effect played out in the present. On February 13, 1692, three troupes of Campbells, who had requested and been granted hospitality by members of Clan MacDonald, rose up in the night and murdered their hosts. 38 MacDonald men were killed; 40 women and children later died of exposure after their houses had been burned. Coming as it did after the defeat of James II at the Battle of the Boyne and the end of the rebellion, the massacre of the Royalist MacDonalds by the Parliamentarian Campbells was unnecessary and egregious, the crime exacerbated by the abuse of the unwritten law of hospitality.

A few years ago, I happened to meet a colleague in an Irish pub, and he introduced me to one of his clients whose name happened to be Campbell. I said that I was a MacDonald. In no time, we were refighting the battle, pulling out justifications for each side. The incident made me realise yet again how we carry the past with us. It also made me look with new eyes at today’s conflicts that are fueled by old wrongs.

Eliot’s poem is a marvel of compression. It captures that eerie sense of dislocation that one often feels revisiting an old battlefield, as one member of the discussion group said, recalling his own visits to Gettysburg and Antietam. Another member pointed out that though the beginning includes wildlife appropriate to a pastoral scene—crows, deer—they are “starving crows” and a stag that “Breeds for the rifle”, leaving us disturbed and uneasy. She also noted that the closeness of the sky overhead, “scarcely room/To leap or soar”, creates a sense of claustrophobia. The closeness of the past, the memory that seems to be bred in your bone: Eliot captures these perfectly. And his later description in “Little Gidding” of how these old foes now stand together makes me wonder again what we owe to the past, to the dead.