Primeval and Other Times

Primeval and Other Times by Olga Tokarczuk

This amazed me, one of those books that enlarged my idea of what fiction could be and what it could do.

I read most of it in a single night because I could not stop, even as I knew I should read more slowly to better understand and appreciate the spell the author is casting here. Stayed up too late reading and then could not fall asleep because my mind was so inflamed thinking about scenes and people from the book. As a reader I was just blown away; as a writer I kept going, how did she DO that?

Primeval reminded me in some ways of 100 Years of Solitude, if that book had been set in Poland and covered only about 80 years of recognizable history and had actual scenes instead of narrative summary. The sense of sweep, the magical realism, the godlike view and the way that one small place is used as a microcosm for the world were all familiar. It’s the 20th century in Poland, so lots of specifically bad things happen, along with the usual tragedies of unrequited love, growing older and dying. Yet somehow the book is not horribly sad, even though I felt for the characters and worried about what would happen to them. I think it is because of the godlike perspective — compassionate yet distanced — that the narrator maintains throughout. Although “godlike” is a somewhat charged term here, because God, too, comes under narrative scrutiny, and doesn’t fare all that well.

Being married to a Polish immigrant has made me more familiar with Poland’s history and culture than would otherwise be the case, and it’s possible this novel speaks more clearly to me because of that. Much here that is never spelled out because its original readers would have known without being told: how this part of Poland would have been in Russia before the first world war, occupied first by Germans and subsequently by Russians during the second, how the wealthier people of the story, like the Squire, would have lost all their property in the Communist era, and the casual corruption of that era. Vodka, mushroom-picking. The murder of the local Jews is efficiently disposed of in a few horrifying pages that is neither sensationalized nor sentimental. And like everything else that happens, is not belabored or over-explained or dwelt on. It just happens. Yet somehow it all feels very real and gripping and personal.

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Jane Austen House in Peril

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Chawton, and the Jane Austen House museum, just once in my life. I’d always hoped to return. But Covid-19, which has made international travel look rather daunting for now, has now posed another threat to the museum, according to this article in The Guardian.

I know the world is on fire, and there are many deserving causes for people still fortunate enough to be able to think about giving money away. But please help out if you can. Her works are immortal. Her house, not so much.

The Thrill of Encountering an Ideal Reader

“The Jane Austen Project” has been out in the world for two and a half years now, and I’ve given up thinking that anything else will ever happen involving it. (Though I suppose Andrew Davies could call at any moment wanting to follow up on the critical and popular acclaim of “Sanditon” by making “Project” into a mini-series, for instance, the chances seem small. )Two and a half years later, having published a novel feels quite a lot like not having published a novel. I am struggling to write a second and wondering what I think I am doing.

So it is gratifying when something happens to remind me that the book still exists out in the world. Continue reading

Dramatizing the Brontes: “The Art of Sisters”

Jane Austen and the Brontës had a lot in common, as clergymen’s daughters, educated but poor, geniuses in a world with little use for brilliant women. Charlotte was famously dismissive of Austen – “the Passions are perfectly unknown to her.”

But what would Austen have thought about them?

The theater-lover in her at least probably would have enjoyed a recent performance I saw: “The Art of Sisters: Tales & Letters by the Brontës,” which dramatized scenes, real and imaginary, evoking their turbulent lives.

One early one, based on a diary paper, hints at their unconventional childhood. Emily (Miriam Canfield, who also directed and adapted) gleefully summarizes a most un-Victorian domestic chaos: “It is past twelve o clock and Anne and I have not tidied ourselves, done our bed work or done our lessons and we want to go out to play …The kitchen is in a very untidy state…”

A decade later, Charlotte (Alida Rose Delaney) is back from Brussels and writing to Constantine Heger, her teacher and unrequited love object. Charlotte’s powerful feelings would soon be channeled into fiction, as we see in the proposal scene from “Jane Eyre,” with Delaney transformed into Jane.

There’s the momentous 1845 episode when Charlotte happens across Emily’s poetry. Emily is outraged by this invasion of privacy, while Anne (Katrina Michaels), ever the peacemaker, pipes up: “Charlotte! I’ve written some poems, too!”

Their novelistic imaginations take flight as Canfield becomes Cathy from “Wuthering Heights,” explaining to a hilariously unsympathetic Nelly Dean (Michaels) why she’s marrying Edgar Linton despite loving Heathcliff.  Michaels, as Mrs. Graham of “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,” decries the double standard of how sons are raised versus daughters.

Back in the real world, their father, Patrick (Stuart Rudin), relates how he was oblivious to the literary goings-on in the parsonage until Charlotte reveals she’s secretly the author of the biggest novel of 1847 and gives him a copy to read. “Children, Charlotte has been writing a book!” he informs the presumably amused Anne and Emily.

But happiness is brief: Emily succumbs to tuberculosis, then Anne. Their deaths are harrowingly dramatized through one of Emily’s poems and Anne’s letter expressing a wish to live longer and do some good in the world. The tall and versatile Marshall Taylor Thurman – already a silent Heger, a scowling Heathcliff, a manipulative Mr. Rochester and a mansplaining Gilbert Markham – reappears in bare feet and a holey sweater to personify Death, brutally claiming Emily and sweeping Anne off gently.

The performance’s intimate setting, a Beaux-Arts townhouse owned by the American Irish Historical Society, brought home an aspect of the Brontës often overlooked but useful to understanding them: the Irish thing.

Early in the performance, Patrick outlines his remarkable story. Growing up on a farm in Ireland, with a love for books, he started his own school at age 16, worked as a tutor in a gentleman’s family, and went to Cambridge University at 25, becoming a minister in the Church of England. This rise from rural obscurity testifies to his intellect and energy, traits his daughters inherited.  Yet as a gentleman by education but not birth, in an England that regarded the Irish askance, he remained an outsider always. This was part of his daughters’ legacy too. Charlotte would go through life with a chip on her shoulder, while Emily was indifferent to what people thought, and Anne blazed with quiet outrage at the world’s injustices.

It’s all very far from Austen’s evasive irony, her decision to let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. But I have to think she would have admired their courage at least, so different from her own yet breathing something of the same air, faced with the same sort of obstacles.

#100daysofwriting, and a Sale

This blog’s been quiet. I’m just writing. It’s fun (mostly) but doesn’t look like much. And my social media action, such as it is, has been on Twitter and Instagram. 

Instagram has been more fun than Twitter because I deal in words so much,  at work and at play, while with Instagram all you have to do is post a picture.

About 78 days ago now I decided to take part in a 100-day challenge I read about on a lovely blog called  This Itch of Writing. Itch, in turn, was inspired by the UK novelist Jenn Ashworth  who wrote:

Anyone can join in. Just turn up every day. One sentence counts. Opening the word document counts. Taking yourself for a walk or a nap to figure out a problem counts. Any type of writing counts. You don’t have to be published or be working toward publication.

No word count boot camp or productivity porn. If you don’t have the spoons to do this every day or you care for other people then you can change the rules so they suit you. If writing is part of your job (academic friends who are working to contract – this is for you) and you need to care for yourself and your colleagues by resisting work at weekends, then change the rules to make it work for you. If you miss a day or a week or change your mind it is okay.

Let’s be gentle and see what happens: I’m doing this because it reminds me to make writing more important than the stuff other people want me to make important. Let’s go! 2/100

That’s keeping the bar pretty low, I thought, I can do that! And so far I have — though some days have been more minimal than others. I think it reminds me to make writing more important than the stuff other people want me to make important” is a beautiful phrase that cannot be said, or thought, enough.

What’s funny about #100daysofwriting, Instagram version, is that I mainly post pictures of my computer. Sometimes, to shake things up and reflect the reality of how I write, I post pictures of my notebook! Every now and then there’s one from an exotic setting like the Keighley & Worth Valley railway or the New York City subway.

So, wait, what about the sale? The Kindle version of THE JANE AUSTEN PROJECT is $1.99, down from its usual $9.99 for am I not sure how long. So if you’ve been thinking about chancing it, this is your moment.