shortstories

REVIEW: Write and Edit a Short Story Weekend Workshop 7-8 October 2017 @londonlitlab

I was very pleased to have applied for this course. It was just the thing I needed – the luxury of writing. I am not interested in posh hotel breaks or spa treats. What attracted me was the quality of the teaching staff. Zoe Gilbert and Lily Dunn are not only published writers, they are also lecturers. The venue is an eclectic warehouse conversion and extension in Clapton Ponds, East London. The place itself, which you enter through a subtropical courtyard garden, was quite inspiring and filled with natural light and interesting objets d’arts. There were ten people on the course all at different levels of writing. They were all women so it was like a hen weekend for women writers.

On the first day, we did P1050983 P1050984 P1050990P1050991 a couple of word games to warm up, followed by ‘jumping straight in’. You can either use and existing idea or try out a new one using images and articles provided. I tried out a new idea. I originally chose two photos and tried to make up a story but it was already like another story. Cautious not to waste any of my 6 hours of time on that day, I decided to use the other option to generate idea – using articles from newspaper and magazines.

I found a copy of New Scientist and dropped it on the ground. On whatever page it flew open, I read the entire two pages and had found something that sparked an idea. On that day itself I wrote 3,000 words of a first draft I would never have been able to do at home.

Throughout the course we were given plenty of handouts to take away and to study. These are very useful and I will be referring to them again and again as they are very concise and well-written. There were plenty of opportunities for discussion and debate. Zoe and Lily are very encouraging and helpful. They even brought in their own work to crit, so we can learn by doing. On the Sunday morning we were given formal taught lessons in writing. This is all very precious salient stuff and I will revisit my course notes again. After lunch we worked on editing and I edited a story I wrote a few months ago but it was too long to be done at one go (5,000 words) and I also found a way of producing a climactic ending.

Lunch on both days was homemade soup. It was very tasty vegetarian soup with accompaniments of salad, bread, cheese, pickle and chutneys. It was very healthy as there was no dessert! I am a very bad cook so I have no idea what soups they were. After a few days I recovered from the intensity and hard work. I am ready to edit the story I wrote there and I cannot wait to share it once I have got it right. I would recommend this course to anybody, beginner or advanced, who is keen in an intense burst of writing, or to kickstart writing after a hiatus like myself.

A Slacker’s Lesson in Promotion

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1/ Someone once said “Writing is Showbusiness for the Shy”.

Events/talks/gigs to promote one’s paperbacks is quite a nice thing to do if you are a) young or b) young at heart or c) have tons of time or d) all of the above ideally. As I am having a déjà vu, this method is not commercially viable, sustainable or cost-efficient for me.

2/ Lessons from Satsuma:
In the good old days of the 90s and 00s, I was gigging with my band Satsuma and in those days people actually bought CDs. I know. At times we played to 5 people and at times 500. You would still put your 110% into it like every gig is your last ever gig. You could sell between 0 to 40 CDs per gig. If you don’t lose money per gig, you’re laughing.

3/ Highs:
Actual sales, new and old fans, actual gigs, photos shoots, stylists, cover design, interviews, excitement, adrenalin. Remember this is the only thing that the audience sees and wants to see.

4/ Lows (time, energy and costs):
Travel, the hours and hours in the rehearsal rooms, recording your EP, five hour sound checks, the travel time and journeys through every kind of weather, loading and unloading at all hours of night or day, flat tyres at 1 am in the icy rain. Nothing is quick, even when I was driving the van, which saves time and money for everybody else. All of this takes an astronomical amount of time and energy, which I no longer have due to having young children and two jobs and a few time-frittering hobbies.

5/ Sour grapes:
The only worse thing than being a complete non-success is a tiny bit of success because that lured us into the belief that there was hope in any of it and therefore more and more time, money and energy should be recycled and ploughed back into gigging and promotion. At some point the balance must have tipped because I was unable to write any more songs. You can burn out from promotion and marketing (and this is before social media). There is no end to it. As someone from the late Slacker generation which is of course in itself a total farce, I may still uphold an optimistic yet cynical view of promotion because I am still constantly figuring out what to do by doing.

6/ Lessons from Hong Kong:
“Yeah, whatever.” Said the Slacker. Despite being on the Unbound and the HK publisher’s conveyor belts, I cannot figure it out. There is no right or wrong. The HK guys say a different thing altogether from Unbound forum. Their view in one line: Forget social media. Stick to word of mouth. Have more parties, sell more books. If books don’t sell, write more books, have more parties. Wanna be a writer? Write more books. Wanna sell books? Write more books. Wanna win a prize? Write more books.

7/ Lessons from crowdfunding:

The Unbound publishing model works for the author because through crowdfunding an author already has shifted between 190 to 300 books. That is more books than you will sell at any gig!

INTERVIEW: American writer Robert Raymer on Writing and Publishing

Robert Raymer photo

Robert Raymer is an American writer and writing facilitator from Grove City, Pennsylvania, who now lives in Kuching, Sarawak on the island of Borneo.

I have met Robert just once. I mentioned him in another blog post called “My First Prize-winning Story was typed on this typewriter” about when I first started submitting my work to competitions and won a short story workshop as a prize for a story I entered. I was 17. I had travelled to the big city of Kuala Lumpur for the first time as part of the prize was attending this workshop. I had never been to KL on my own before. I was totally naive and he was the first American I had met and I thought hey, this glamorous guy must be a movie star from Hollywood as all Americans were movie stars, were they not? The only other white people I had ever met were three women preachers or missionaries from my mum’s home church who played the church organ, wore frocks and sandals and sang gospel hymns all in harmony. They were not film stars. They were Methodists from New Zealand.

It was thirty years ago. I am now 47. About twelve years ago, Robert was the editor for an anthology of short stories called Silverfish New Writing 4. He selected and edited my short story entitled “Friday Night at the Pheasant”. I have lost touch and found him again, thanks to the internet. It seems that life has its circular way of making sense.

I am really honoured that I got to interview Robert here. I have read most if not all of Robert’s stories and what comes across is that he really loves writing and his work is accessible. He writes with kindness, passion and humour. Here he shares with honesty his invaluable experience, hard work and expertise as a writer which he has gained over many decades, his lessons learned and re-learned, the dedication and sacrifices he and his family have made. Warning: This post is a treasure trove. Look away now if you do not wish to know the skill, hardship and labour of love that is the writing life.
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-Interview begins-

1. How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
Usually once you publish a book, you move onto the next one, but when the publisher, Heinemann Asia got bought out and the buyer got bought out, too, and dropped their whole line of fiction, I found my three-year-old collection of short stories orphaned. So I kept revising the individual stories, trying to sell them to markets outside of Malaysia/ Singapore. Then a Malaysian lecturer wanted to use my now-out-of-print book for his course on post-colonial writing, so I contacted another publisher that said yes. But first I took a hard look at the stories, hired an editor to rip them apart, and then I overhauled the stories, adding back-stories, changing endings, even doubling several stories in length. After moving to Sarawak and not finding the book in the stores, the Malaysian publisher blamed it on the Singapore distributor refusal to ship the books because of the additional costs, so with his blessing I switched to a third publisher, and revised everything again. That third collection, with the addition of two stories, won the 2009 Popular Reader’s Choice Award and was translated into French. Those original 15 stories (minus one, plus two) have been published 80 times in twelve countries. I even blogged a story-behind-the-stories series, pointing out the significant changes for each story that led to their publications locally and overseas.

The lesson, even though a book is published, doesn’t mean you can’t improve it.

That surely applies to unpublished novels that I felt could’ve been published a long time ago— I’ve had offers, but I didn’t think it would ever get out of Malaysia or Singapore. The heavily-revised books are so much better than what they would have been had I settled for a local publisher.

2. What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?

Investing in myself by moving to Malaysia to write full time (and taking the slow route, backpacking nine months until I got dysentery),

after writing “Mat Salleh”, a short story about meeting my Malaysian-in-laws, later published in the UK, and completing the first draft of a terrible novel to prove that I could at least stick with it. As a footnote, that “Mat Salleh” story attracted the attention of Ohio University (USA) twenty years later who wanted to film it; instead they opted to film another story of mine, “Home for Hari Raya” in Malaysia.

3. How long were you a part-time writer before you became a full-time one?
That’s a tricky question. I was a part time writer for a few years in the US but chose to move to Malaysia in order to write full time, though I was mostly living off savings. Once that money ran out, I went back to working/teaching full time and writing part-time for another twenty years.

Although I write full time now, I’m also a house husband looking after two boys, age 10 and 13.

For now, I’m not making enough to support myself full time, but that is a trade off we made….Living in Malaysia, in Borneo, as a writer is a lot cheaper than living in the US or the UK. Now and then, when my wife has a really bad day, she’ll ask me for a progress report to keep me honest…Luckily, one of the perks for her job is travelling every year to Germany and then taking an extra week to travel in Europe while I stay home with the kids…

4. How many hours a day do you write? Tell us about your day.

Writing full time when you have children rarely means writing full time.

Since my elder son started to attend afternoon school my day has become topsy-turvy. On school days I’m up by 5:30 and by 6:00 the children are en route to school and I’m free to write until about 10:15. Then I have to cook and feed my elder son and take him to school and pick up my younger son and feed us both lunch. By 2:30, I’m back to writing. On the evenings that I cook, I stop around 6:00 and if I’m lucky, I can get back to work by 8:45. By 10:00 I’m usually in bed. The days I don’t cook dinner, I can work from 2:30 until about 7:45 and be back to work by 8:30 until 10:00. Of course not all of that is sole writing time, since I do have children,

but when I’m pushing a self-imposed or a real deadline, I’m surprised by how much work I can get done when I focus on the work and ignore distractions, including my children, who naturally take advantage of me….

Weekends depend if they have any school activities (swimming) on Saturday morning or tuition in the afternoon and our plans to watch a movie or go out for dinner. Sundays, after cooking brunch, I usually write all afternoon, often into the evening, especially when pushing a deadline.

5. What advice would you give writers who are facing only rejections?

If you are getting rejections that means you are writing and submitting your work and that is good.

No rejections, usually translates into not writing or not submitting your work. It’s all about perseverance and writing better stories and revising and outlasting those rejections. They say you only fail as a writer when you stop writing, so don’t stop writing! Remember that every best-selling author, every published writer started out getting rejected again and again! They didn’t give up; they persevered. The question you have to ask yourself: will you give up or will you persevere? Also read widely and read successful books you would not normally read to see what makes them successful. Read, learn and apply what you have learned to your writing. Self-help books do help!

6. Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?

Rarely do I read any book that doesn’t make me think differently about fiction.

When I read good non-fiction it can read like fiction, if it has a good story to tell in an interesting way. This used to surprise me, but good fiction can also read like non-fiction (think memoir—James Frey, anyone?) if your characters and setting and all the details ring true and seem real to the reader, even if you’re making most of it up, so long as the story is good.

7. What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
Other than financial, it is patience and knowing when your work is ready for publication and not just because you are tired of monkeying around with it and can’t wait to become rich and famous. It’s having the courage to accept that maybe it’s not the best it could be and then rolling up your sleeves and revising it yet again.

Having gone through it again, if done earnestly, you’re often glad that you did, surprised by how much you were able to improve the manuscript on nearly every single page!

So keep doing that! I now go through each chapter three times whether it’s my 5th, 10th or 20th draft, after I’ve printed it out and line edited it, and the changes I keep making are immense….And I thought it was already good, ready to be published! So you can either blame the agents and the publishers or get back to work and find out what’s missing or what could be fixed or improved.

8. What are you working on now and what are you planning on writing next? Tell us about your next project.

I have sequels planned for three novels that I wrote, including one set in Penang, which will be sandwiched between two other novels, part of a trilogy.

Originally I hadn’t planned a trilogy, or even a sequel, but when I realized both novels could be related, I changed the character in the second book to match that in a much earlier novel, and reconciled the dates, the back-stories; but then I realized that I had always planned to write a third novel set in Penang based on an incident that happened to me and I thought, this might work between the other two books, involving the same character. Since I had purposely introduced a new character at the end of the first book who would be one of the main characters in that now third book, she could be in the second book, too, along with several upcoming characters. So that second book is starting to feel like a prequel to that third book. Also, I had written a novel set in the US about a shooting incident involving a child, and I have two novels planned as sequels. Then last year I adapted a screenplay into a humorous novel about a hapless spirit helping a boy find a new mother. Of course, I have a sequel planned for that….In fact, I was itching to start either that or the other set in the US by mid-July while waiting for the results of the Faulkner-Wisdom contest where I have submitted five novels.

But two weeks ago, while showering, I suddenly found a way to begin another novel idea that I had been collecting notes on that I felt was more marketable, so I put everything else on hold.

Since I’m still in the early stages of writing the first draft, I don’t want to let the genie out of the bottle before I finish writing it. Based on past experience, the drive to write the story is gone once you start talking about the story. You can talk the story right out of your system. Write it first, talk about it later when the story is written or it’ll always be just another idea that you never got around to write. I figured if never got another new idea for another novel, I could spend the rest of my life happily writing sequels based on the notes I already typed into my computer (dozens of pages for most, others a whole lot more) and that’s not a bad feeling….I admit, at times, I do feel like that donkey that starves to death because it can’t decide between two stacks of hay. So finding a third stack can be a real life saver…

9. If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?
Edit…which I do now and then. Having taught creative writing for thirteen years at two universities and having line edited about a thousand manuscripts, I know I can help other writers because I can see what they are missing. Of course, it’s always easier to see the flaws in someone else’s work than your own, but after a while, you see similar flaws in your own work and because you were able to fix their work, you can now fix yours….

And if you had stopped writing for any reason, you would think, hell I can write better
than that, and this would lead you back into your own writing and editing your own
work…

-Interview ends-

Thank you so much Robert for the incredible interview! I can’t wait to hear the results of the Faulkner-Wisdom Competition and please join me in wishing him every success. I hope he starts on the seeds of his new novel imminently. Find him at www.borneoexpatwriter.com. Read his entertaining and insightful blog here.

About Robert Raymer:

After graduating from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, he was a regional manager for Kinko,[1] in charge of 11 stores in three states before moving to Penang, Malaysia where he lived for 21 years and taught creative writing at Universiti Sains Malaysia. He also taught creative writing at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak. He is the author of a collection of short stories set in Malaysia (Lovers and Strangers Revisited, MPH Group, 2008), a collection of creative nonfiction (Tropical Affairs, MPH, 2009), and a travel book (Spirit of Malaysia, Editions Didier Millet, 2011).

Named as one of the “50 Expats You Should Know in Malaysia” by Expatriate Lifestyle magazine (January 2010),[2] Robert Raymer’s short stories and articles have appeared in many publications including The Literary Review, London Magazine, Thema, Descant, The Writer and Reader’s Digest. One story from Lovers and Strangers Revisited has been used for the Cambridge International Examinations and others have been taught in Malaysian universities, private colleges and Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia literature in secondary schools,[3] as well as in a high school in Canada. He was the editor of Silverfish New Writing 4. Three of his novels have been “short-list” finalists in the 2009 and 2011 Faulkner-Wisdom Novel Competition.

REVIEW: Secret retro gig on Saturday 10 June 2017 for Writers!

… celebrating for the first time with Unbound authors. It has been 12 or 13 years since I did my MA and listened to ‘readings’ from a writers’ group. I was touched that my new international writer friends had travelled from all over- Italy, Coventry, Winchester, Oxford and London of course, to my corner of SW London. It reminded me of the old days (1990s) of writers group where you meet in writers’ homes. There were no photos because no one carried such as thing as a camera around let alone a phone. I deliberately did not take photos of our secret gig on Sat 10th June. And definitely none of food!

In the old days you actually had to call people on their landlines (Hello? Hello? Are you coming tonight? Did you know it is tonight? I left so many messages on your ansaphone? I gotta go now, the boss is back. Click.) during your lunch hour from your office phones as there was no mobile phones or email then, or you had to actually use your landlines in the evenings from home. Today’s gig was intimately organised via Messenger, and not EventBrite or other invitation platforms.

For this event I invited everyone but I naturally hoped that not everyone of the 201 UB authors would turn up. During lunch we chatted about writing, publishing, agents, everybody’s experiences of the C-word*. After pizzas, salads, chicken legs and mojitos, we heard everyone’s work interspersed with cake, prosecco and tea break. We heard Jessica Duchen‘s new magical realist writing (Jessica is author of Ghost Variations), from Tamsen Courtenay, author of Four Feet Under, about the plight of the homeless, the only non-fiction writing in the group, an ‘uncut’ exclusive excerpt from Patrick Kincaid‘s The Continuity Girl. Jennie Ensor read stalker-point-of-view excerpts from her thriller Blind SideDamon Wakes, author of Ten Little Astronauts, read interactive fiction from his 150,000 word “Girth Loinhammer’s Most Exponential Adventure” coming out this year on a Spanish label. I didn’t read from my Unbound book, Heart of Glass, instead read an old short story published in the Silverfish New Writing 4 anthology called “Friday Night at the Pheasant”. For those of you who did not hear but would like to read it, click on the link. Yvonne Lyon left her Prologue from the Burning Road: Book One: Moorland on the bus so she didn’t get to read it! For those of you who would like to read it, it is here. Yvonne is a friend from 2001 and we met in south of France on a writers’ retreat week.

It was a really heartwarming experience and support group which reminded us that before social media and all this nonsense, we were and are writers, and after social media and all this nonsense, we were and are friends. I can probably qualify as a tea girl now that I managed to make English tea. I think some of the other writers from the southern contingent would be fighting and elbowing their way to host the next secret gig. Whose turn next? Tune in to find out!

If you liked my blog post and would like to receive occasional news, please do sign up.

PS. No one even mentioned the elections which is unbelievable? How retro is that? Remember the ancient caveat: Do not talk politix at writers’ do’s.

*crowdfunding

My first Prize-winning Story was Typed on this Typewriter

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The first story which I wrote and submitted was for the 1984 New Straits Times Short Story Competition. It was called Miel and the Honey Bunch or something pretentious-sounding like that. The exact story and wording are all gone now. Success came to me early as a writer, to my detriment, as I since then I always thought I would be a professional and successful writer without much effort. I developed a complacency towards the creative act of writing.

I was then 14 years old and the youngest entrant. There was no such thing as YA genre at the time. You were either an adult or a child. I didn’t get a mention and didn’t win anything.  I competed as an adult but any competition was as tough then as it is now. Out of hundreds and maybe thousands of entries, there can only be one winner and the rest runners up or in the commended list. I was fine. I remember thinking that I just wanted to send it out, no matter what.

In 1986 I entered the same competition again. I was now 16. As per two years before, I wrote the story by hand and dictated it to my mother who typed the story up in triplicate on this typewriter pictured, the Royal 240. My dad bought it in the Johor Bahru NAAFI in 1970*. It was attractively wood-panelled. It had red and black ribbons. I remember that distinctive strong fresh chemical smell of the typewriter ink. It had two discoloured or stained keys, I am not sure why. Graphic designers? Anybody? When I saw this photo (which is the same model but it is not the actual typewriter that was used) I noticed that it also had two discoloured keys! Imagine my excitement at the discovery. I could not type and neither could she. She used two fingers and typed out 1,500 to 2,000 words. I sat next to her and read out a paragraph first, where we would edit manually, orally or aurally, then a second reading word by word for it to be typed. It took some time but in those days you have time! Everybody had time! We used and re-used the carbon paper for the triplicate copies until it was transparent, until you could put it against a window and see the view beyond the window, until an abstract pattern was made by layers and lines of juxtaposed and superimposed text which no longer made sense, which no longer could be read legibly.

She was strangely a perfectionist and I did not know it then, I just thought ‘Damn! Mummy’s fussy!’. We quarreled, I sulked, we came back to the typing, we snapped, we sent it off. Now I feel grateful now that my mother was so supportive and meticulous about it too. When the words looked messy or clumsy on the page, she would rip the paper out and crush it into a ball like those cartoon caricatures of writers. And then we would start again. As she typed I remember her correcting my grammar and turns of phrases. ‘Is’ or ‘was’, ‘would be’ or ‘would have been’, she would ask, sometimes to herself, sometimes to me, and we would discuss. The final decision was sometimes hers, sometimes mine and sometimes joint. Letter by letter, word by word, sentence by sentence, my story was typed out.

This time I won a prize of a weekend writing workshop at the New Straits Times headquarters: 31 Jalan Riong, 51000 Kuala Lumpur. I got to meet the amazingly kind and funny writer Robert Raymer, a poet called Jeya and a film critic called Kee Thuan Chye. You must remember that I was born and raised in Johor Bahru where nothing happens and most definitely, nothing exciting. It is like saying you are from Hull. The address and postcode of The New Straits Times office is etched in my memory forever. I referred to the letter until I memorised it. It went everywhere I went. It was more valuable than money or keys. I just had to have it with me. I held it in my hand, my school bag, my drawer until it tore at the creases where it once folded. I do not have it anymore. Sometimes I wish I still have it but maybe it was the right thing after all that it has perished over time. The letter had served its purpose which was to endorse me as a writer when I was still young.

Please pre-order my novel Heart of Glass here.

*The Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes (NAAFI /ˈnæfiː/) is an organisation created by the British government in 1921 to run recreational establishments needed by the British Armed Forces, and to sell goods to servicemen and their families.

Photo credit: The Royal 240 by Steve K of the White Elephant

 

“Support a JB writer’s book project” article by blogger Peggy Loh

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Blogger Peggy Loh is a writer herself. She is, like me, born a writer, and born and raised in Johor Bahru. She is a writer with the New Straits Times.

Read Peggy’s detailed and insightful write-up here of Heart of Glass and of me. Check out her blog also at peggyloh.com which is called MY Johor Stories. Her blog has a wonderful vintage feel as she knows the old world well and tells her stories vividly and with so much atmosphere.

REVIEW: David Szalay’s “All that Man is” Man Booker 2016 shortlist

I started this book in 2016 and finished it in 2017.

That is because I did not want it to end. This book is on the Man Booker Prize 2016 shortlist. There are famously 9 parts to this novel. It has been heavily debated whether it should be a novel or nine short stories. I think it is a novel. It has the impact of a novel. Each is not self-contained. Each leads to the next character. Supposedly this is a novel about masculinity. I wonder if the majority of the readers are men or women. I would be surprised if it was men. The book has universal appeal because it is about the human condition (again) as all literary novels are, and secondly it is about ageing, and therefore the descent of the human over just a few decades.

I don’t know about you, but when I read I like to be taken to somewhere else.

Even if it is a mundane somewhere else, it is not in my own mundane world. All that Man is is nine different men of six nationalities in 13 different countries. I never thought I would be so interested in men. I am not, really. Yet I am fascinated by each of them as their stories unfold. It is the purity of the moment that Szalay excels at. Every moment, even and especially the mundane, is rich and evocative, and lived, in every sense of the word. Plot, grand themes, idea, character exposition is of secondary importance to the living the moment.

The first character is an artsy bookworm type 17-year-old inter-railing around Europe in the summer with his friend before going up to Oxford. The last character is a 73-year-old depressed, lonely and retired civil servant in his second home in the Italian town of Argenta infested by mice and poor central heating.

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SPOILER ALERT. Don’t read this section if you don’t want to know the plot.

The civil servant reads an email from his daughter regarding his grandson who is inter-railing in Europe, who has just written a poem and has been published. Then only the reader finds out the twist, that life has come full cycle, as the novel has. The first character is the lasat character’s grandson after all. These are the only two characters connected to each other. The second character is a lazy unambitious Frenchman, probably in his early twenties, who has been sacked from his job and is now on the pull in Cyprus and manages to sleep with an obese girl AND her mother (because he doesn’t really care and just shags). Next up: a Hungarian working as bodyguard for an acquaintance who pimps his girlfriend in Park Lane hotels in London and he fancies the pants off this girl that he is supposedly bodyguarding. This is followed by a thirty-something Belgian scholar of medieval history who really fancies himself, like an academic would do, driving across Europe to meeting his ambitious and young Polish TV presenter girlfriend who is pregnant. He is totally against it, and reticent about fatherhood. My least favourite character comes next, and I had to speed read this section because I didn’t get it: a Danish journalist flies to Malaga to confront a minister about his affair. Next up: an English estate agent from Earlsfield, London, works with a developer trying to sell cheap Alpine chalets and he fancies the girl who is local Swiss agent but as he is middle-aged he can’t be bothered to make a move on her. Probably my second favourite is the miserable Scottish alcoholic in his fifties relocates to Croatia as it’s cheap, after he has sold his flat and is now drinking himself to death but encounters scams, punchups, mishap after mishap and bad luck; The second last character is a suicidal Russian oligarch in his sixties on his yacht in the Mediterranean, losing all his money to his third wife in some complicated divorce trial and having meetings with butler, cook, and lawyer and various staff. He has lost his verve and passion to live. He realises that he does not want any of his substantial assets and the wife can have it all.

SPOILER OVER. It’s OK to read this last paragraph now.

Therefore it is not quite true to say that plot is secondary. Plot comes from character. The characters make the plot and they become the story. The first thing that occurred to me was – how did he know all that? There is a lot of detail and all of it is relevant. It must have been thoroughly painstaking to write this book. The simpler to read, the more complicated the writing. He knows the minutiae about people, their jobs, their cultures, their countries. These are drawn into photographic detail. Everything rang true. Sadly I have now finished the book. I made it last as long as I could because it is a 9 course meal! Come on! I do not want to rush it as it is the most intense and endearing reading experience that David Szalay has given us. He is so talented and he writes in extremely simple language. It reads like it is a translation. There are no big words. There is nothing he would like to show off except how finely he writes. I really would like David Szalay to write The sequel: All that Woman is.

REVIEW: Stefan Zweig’s “Fantastic Night and Other Stories – Tales of Longing and Liberation”

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“Fantastic Night and Other Stories”

was written in 1922. Zweig was born in Vienna in 1881 to a wealthy Austrian Jewish family. He moved everywhere after he was a student in Berlin, he ended in London and New York and finally Brazil. He died in a double suicide with his wife in Brazil in 1942. These are “Tales of Longing and Liberation” says the inside of the front cover. These are loose terms and indeed I did not have any idea or want to have any idea what they meant. Zweig was an inspiration for Wes Anderson‘s Grand Budapest Hotel. You are probably thinking the same thing. Yep. Moustache.

Inside Cover

Inside Cover

Front cover

Front cover

The titular story

is the first and the longest (54 pages) of the collection. The main character, unnamed, tells his story through the narrator being given the text of the story that is to be told. This was quite a modern psychological concept of the time, which also means that it is dated and contextual. “Fantastic Night” (I love the title BTW, I really think the writer has totally captured our hearts and our imagination because you straightaway want to know what is it about the night that was fantastic?) is about man’s spiritual awakening. That night, became

the pivot on which my whole existence turns.

Turning is always a good theme for a story, that is the transformation for which the reader is looking. And before that night, the main character was a wealthy, seemingly worry-free, successful yet vacuous 36 year old man, someone who was trite and childish. Money does do that to people. Therefore the universal themes did apply then. How many successful vacuous people do you know?

I did not lack for success with women, and here too, with the secret collector’s urge which in a way indicates a lack of real involvement, I chalked up many memorable and precious hours of varied experience. In this field I gradually moved from being a mere sensualist to the status of a knowledgeable connoisseur. … But nothing stirred, I felt as if I were made of glass, with the world outside shining through me and never lingering within…

The scene at the races which was his so -called pivot, took a tad too long. I really wanted to know why Zweig could not get the story told quicker. Maybe it is that archaic suspenseful literary technique of storytelling which grates on me. The character experiences and toys with a minor indiscretion (well, basically, overt flirting with a married lady), leading to

the pull of criminality

Where the “criminality” referred to is how he managed to pull wool over the woman’s husband’s eyes, cheated the stupid bloke of his winnings, in order to impress the woman he was flirting with (who was BTW not pretty but fat and red-faced yet someone he found attractive because of her raucous, dirty laugh), and then to return the cheated money in an over-the-top overpayment secret gesture.

I felt myself, desiccated as I was, suddenly flowering again.

The word desiccated was very evocative of a decadent period, decaying morals, old money, despair, coconut. Although it was predictable but open conclusion, I think the darkness, moral nature and long-windedness of the story actually contributed to its power and I found it satisfyingly morbid.

Once a man has found himself, there is nothing in this world that he can lose.

I think that is really beautifully said. This is a metaphysical story that actually brings about ideas, a story that makes you think. You cannot read this without thinking: you won’t be able to enjoy its richness. This is where the universal themes come into play. A rich man must start from scratch in order to live. That is the moral of the story.

“The Governess”

was quite a brief old-fashioned story. Very simply it was about a nanny that got pregnant by Otto the lodger (a university student) of the household and she was so vehemently berated by her employer that she did something terrible to herself. The parents are supposedly on the moral high ground, they are cold, unfeeling and needless to say, wealthy (or wealthy enough to afford the nanny). The Frau of the house refers to the Fraulein’s condition:

“Excuses, excuses! Every promiscuous girl will offer that excuse! She’ll blame the first man who comes to mind and thinking nothing of it, hoping the good Lord will come to her aid. And a woman like that claims to be a governess and fit to educate girls. It’s outrageous. You sure don’t imagine that, in your condition, I shall keep you in my household any longer?”

This story was actually told in the third person, but from the children’s POV.  I was very sad and frightened for the children she cared for, for truly they cared for her and thought she was very ill. They took the trouble to take their own money and buy white roses for her because they knew that she loved them. But it was too late. In this story, it was clear that the children were severely affected and upset because they were so attached to the nanny and the nanny to them.

“Letter from an Unknown Woman”

was the most powerful story in the colleciton, IMHO. I could not stop reading it. It was totally gripping and unsettling. The story spans a woman’s entire lifetime, from childhood to her early demise. The character that the story is about is not this woman, that is why this is such a clever story. That main character is a successful writer, who never speaks, to whom the entire story is addressed in second person, who receives a letter from a woman who is dying who turns out to have known and devoted herself to him all her life, from childhood onwards.

However, I did not guess that at the time age of thirteen, still a child, it was as it I had been immersed in fire. I though the tenderness was only for me, for me alone, and in that one second, the woman latent in my adolescent self awoke, and she in thrall to you for ever.

At first I thought this must be a stalker story. How foolish and modern I am. Turns out I am wrong.

The woman returns, becomes his lover, becomes mother to his child, becomes a prostitute and therefore making the writer her client in order to raise the child with middle-class luxuries, and all the time dedicated to him. She gave him so many chances to recognise her, as the little girl in the hallway of the apartment building they all lived in, who looked at him through the keyhole who grew up and left the apartment block and came back to become his lover. He never recognised her in more than twenty years despite having met her, fancied her, shagged her so many times. This story was about this character who was truly so solipsistic and narcissistic that he became blind and deaf to someone else, anyone else. They might as well not exist. And now they did not. It was too late, the letter said the son, their son, was ill and had died, and now she was dying too. Quite a depressing story and there is no light coming in from the window at any point. It was a dark, moving and disturbing story. Nuff said.

Conclusion

This is a fine glittering collection, will suit anybody who is a fan of that period of literature, the Viennese tradition, the Grand Budapest Hotel, the deepest, darkest moments of human emotions, loss, gripping passions, intense encounters. Very very excellent reading. It will transform your one evening into a “Fantastic Night”.

SZ

SZ

photo credit: LOBBY BOY / The Grand Budapest Hotel via photopin (license)
photo credit: via photopin (license)