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Jenn Ashworth: A very gifted storyteller

The Friday Gospels by Jenn Ashworth

The Friday Gospels is a book about a Mormon family awaiting the return of their son, Gary, from a pilgrimage to Salt Lake City, where he’s been studying as a missionary for two years. Although Mormonism is very much the cynosure of the story, The Friday Gospels is a book about family in a very universal sense. It is a carefully crafted work that deals with lost innocence, the burden of experience and the trials and tribulations that can sever and fortify familial bonds. The saga unfolds on the day of Gary’s return with every member of the Leeke household –  including the prodigal son – telling their own story, which gradually builds into a very resonantly ticking time bomb. Several chapters in and one is struck by how skillfully – convincingly – Jenn Ashworth formulates each character, giving them a distinctly unique personality and voice. Jeannie, the teenage daughter, for example, is shy, a little withdrawn but all heart. Gary is callow and very earnest and has a number of covert aspirations that have nothing to do with missionary work. Martin, the man of the house, is on the surface an uxorious husband but underneath feels downtrodden by the realities of family life. Pauline, the long suffering wife and mother, fits her role perfectly veering between an obdurate matriarch and a perpetual nurturer. And then there’s Julian, the tearaway eldest son, angry and unpredictable – a grave concern to the rest of the Leeke clan.

Julian is the common thread that weaves through every character’s narrative as their concern for his increasingly erratic behavior mounts, temporarily distracting them from their own personal troubles. “Julian had been being right weird,” Jeannie says at one point, “running up and down the stairs and making the house feel small with his shouting and moaning and moving things around in his bedroom.” Similar thoughts occur to Pauline who fears he might “start tearing down the house,” Martin who says Julian’s “not much to look at” among other things and Gary to whom Jeannie grumbles about the older brother, urging the younger one to come home. “Jeannie writes that he [Julian] is getting worse,” Gary tells us, “that he speaks like a robot, that a family from the Ward had complained to Dad about him looking into their windows. He’s going to do something, she says, he’s going to blow a gasket.”  Yet unbeknown to anyone Julian plans to get away before he blows, leaving his shitty job, his depraved boss and his neurotic family behind because, as he explains, a “person cannot be expected to live his life around the edges of an ash cloud”. While no one is aware of Julian’s intentions, they know that something is awry and feel it will be up to Gary to put it right. “Gary’s homecoming is going to be a real triumph for me personally,” Pauline says proudly, thinking on the subject, “and for our family generally.”

But she has no idea, neither about Jeannie and her ever-growing predicament nor Julian and his objectives toward a little girl called Angela, and certainly not about Gary’s sense of presiding inferiority or Martin, who has been in love with someone else for over three weeks. In fact, Pauline’s sense of awareness is completely subsumed by her physical ailments, her hysterical muliebrity and, as Martin puts it, her overwhelming “interest in the moral dimensions of carpets, paint, net curtains and tablecloths,” which has landed the family up to their “eyeballs in debt”. All these problems are compounded by secrecy, and the prevailing delusion among the Leekes that Gary’s homecoming will be their individual and collective salvation. And yet, ironically, it is Julian who comes to the rescue when the hypothetical bomb detonates. The Friday Gospels is an intricate examination of family, brilliantly conceived and executed by a wonderfully imaginative writer with a penchant for irony and an ear for dialogue. Having been brought up in a Mormon household Ashworth writes about the religion, its customs and traditions, with ostensible familiarity without prejudice (in either direction) and with a rare ability to interweave it seamlessly into the narrative. She allows her characters to rely on their faith and have doubts about it, to experience confusion about its practices and, in Julian’s case, to feel animosity toward its edicts and mandates. “If you are not breeding, shitting out four or six or even nine kids,” he rages after being accosted by two Elders, who suggest marriage might save him from sin, “then there is something wrong with you. You are sick, or deformed or gay.”

Ashworth manages to convey the finer points of Mormonism without preaching, rooting them into the story, rich in practical and spiritual examples, which debunk some stereotypes but also expose some of the myths integral to the faith. The struggle between good as defined by Latter-Day-Saints (LDS) and that by the rest of the world is something that is evident among all the characters, who waver in their beliefs and convictions intermittently through the book. This is a theme that Ashworth partially set out to explore. “My upbringing has influenced my fiction massively,” she recently said in an interview with the Guardian, “If I hadn’t been brought up LDS, I wouldn’t have ended up a writer. I am certain about that. The connection is something that’s hovered over me my whole life, and I am only just now getting to grips with it. My preoccupation with truth and reliability, unstable identities caused by slippery language, isolation, reading between the lines, mistranslation and misunderstandings are a very clear hangover from being told I was a member of the only true church in the entire world, restored on to the earth by some magical acts of translation and revelation, and led by a person who could not and would not lie. And then I found out that this was not so.” Ashworth is also keen to point out that there is no link between her own family and the Leekes except in a very general way, a way in which, she says, it shows “some of what can happen when you’re told the world is orderly and certain and then you discover that it isn’t”.

Ashworth has written a number of short stories and two other novels, A Kind of Intimacy (2009) and Cold Light (2012).  And yet despite her modest output, The Friday Gospels has the maturity one would expect from a seasoned writer, who is consistently inventive and original, her prose humorous, intelligent and moving without ever seeming laboured or strained. This is perhaps due to Ashworth’s experience as a Writing Fellow at the University of Manchester – where she studied for her own MA in creative writing in 2005 – her teaching position at the University of Central Lancashire and all the “standalone workshops” that she has done. But I suspect it is because she has a very authentic knack for storytelling, clever, inspired and resonating all in one. “I think I’m a very messy, instinctive writer” Ashworth says, “teaching forces me to theorise about what I do, and extract some observations (not rules) that I can pass on to others. Mainly though, I always say I teach close reading and editing; the writing they have to do on their own. I’m constantly impressed and humbled by the hard work, originality and sheer bloody-mindedness of my students. It’s heartening to be around people who are struggling to make their writing better, the same as I am.” And yet one would hardly know of Ashworth’s struggle reading her latest work, which is an accomplished tale about humanity at its best and its worst, relayed by a very gifted storyteller on the first rungs of a brilliant literary career.

Guardian | Jenn Ashworth 

Publisher: Sceptre
Publication Date: January 2013
Hardback: 336 pages
ISBN: 9781444707724

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Henri Barbusse: Revived the power of art to influence popular opinion

Henri Barbusse’s Hell – much like Jean Paul Sartre’s – consists of other people. Only Barbusse’s Hell is devised to show us that man’s desire for solitude cannot be reconciled with his desire to live to the utmost degree of fulfillment. Written in 1908, Hell is considered Barbusse’s first significant book and one most closely identified with neonaturalism, which later came to define his work. It wasn’t until 1916, however, that Barbusse gained critical acclaim with the publication of Under Fire, a novel comprising evocative first person vignettes about his experiences of World War I. Barbusse enlisted in the French Army in 1914, at the age of 41, and served in the war until the end. Much of his subsequent work consists of visceral and unsparing accounts of the carnage of trench warfare, which have earned him a reputation as the definitive voice of soldiers in combat. By taking an uncompromising look at both politics and conflict in his fiction, Barbusse revived the power of art to influence popular opinion, enter national debate and transform society, which he had unapologetically shocked eight years before with the publication of Hell.

The book – about a young bachelor, who moves into a lowly boarding house and inadvertently begins spying on his fellow boarders through a crack in the wall – sparked a scandal and was deemed a work of gratuitous voyeurism and moral aberration. The latter due to the fact that Barbusse’s anonymous Peeping Tom witnesses all manner of human behaviour contravening social conventions. Highly realistic and detailed in its portrayal, Hell is narrated by a rather average and “rather short” but “quite correctly dressed” man of 30, who speaking for the first time hastily asserts his theological proclivity, saying he believes “in many things,” but “above all, in the existence of God, if not in the dogmas of religion”.  As a believer, he declares himself to be a moral man, with an absolute “sense of good and evil,” who could not commit “an indelicacy even if certain of impunity”. Barbusse, very cleverly, fashions his protagonist as the everyman, honourable and decent and self-righteously affirmed in his belief until his belief is tested and found wanting. There is clearly a biblical element to Barbusse’s story of forbidden fruit and man’s subsequent downfall, which makes the appellation of the book all the more significant. But there is also another hell, which Barbusse is keen to illustrate, namely that of man’s perdurable yearning “for something infinite and something new,” and the tragedy of this on-going inner conflict.

After peering through the crack into the Room and discovering life in all its varying forms, Hell’s protagonist, who has led an unremarkable humdrum existence, is suddenly and unexpectedly stirred by inexplicable avarice. And thus he finds himself immodestly longing for glory, love and success; all this in spite of the fact that he has nothing to offer “no genius, no mission to fulfill, no great heart to bestow”. He laments his predicament, saying: “I thought I was wise and content with my lot [but]…I longed to take everything that was not mine…God, I was lost!  I prayed to Him to have pity on me.” But his God does not have pity. Nor does he intervene in the “frightful, regular crisis” strewn in man’s way or “preserve man from having to mourn the loss of all his dreams,” as the protagonist gradually discovers. Transfixed by life in the Room, he watches it unfold day by day, revealing the suffering and the struggle innate in the human condition. “Suffering,” Barbusse writes, “leads us to the heart of reality. It is an error to believe that we can be happy in perfect calm and clearness, as abstract as formula. We are made too much out of shadow and some form of suffering. If everything that hurt us were to be removed, what would remain? Happiness needs unhappiness. Joy goes in hand with sorrow.” This Jungian idea of cosmic equilibrium and the notion that sorrow is balanced out by joy, tears by laughter, death by birth,  constitutes a significant part of the narrative, illustrated skilfully through the changing scenarios taking place in the Room. And as the story progresses it also serves to eliminate the notion of a Divine being. The novel’s moment of peripeteia arrives when the protagonist, formerly a religious sort, having seen the whole spectrum of human experience comes to the realisation that “man is the only absolute thing in the world”.

In drawing this conclusion, Barbusse unveils “a frightfully difficult truth”. A truth he unwaveringly believed and later propagated in several other works, including The Judas of Jesus (1927), a portrayal of Christ as an early communist revolutionary. Barbusse joined the French Communist Party shortly after the war and became a leading figure in the campaign of French leftist intellectuals to combat fascism and improve workers’ rights. He later set up a literary journal by the name of Monde, which served as a vehicle for his ideas.  Much of his ensuing partisan writing was subjected to very harsh criticism, but for Barbusse there was no division between politics and art and the later served merely as a tool to achieve the aims of the former. Barbusse’s progressive social role for literature, however, was becoming increasingly incompatible with other newly emerging aesthetic attitudes, especially those about the place of political discourse in the creative sphere. And while he endeavoured to continue to write about the past in order to shape the outlook of the future, the likes of the Surrealists and the Dadaists sought to destroy it in order to begin anew.

Somewhere along the changing literary landscape Barbusse fell out of favour, mainly due to his astringent political activism and communist sentiments. In January 1918, he left France and moved to Moscow where he married, joined the Bolshevik Party and wrote a book about Stalin, for which he was objurgated along with his propagandistic activities on behalf of Soviet Russia. While writing a second biography of the Russian leader, Barbusse fell ill with pneumonia and died on 30th August 1935. All this long after the publication of Hell, a revealing first look at Barbusse’s fledgling social, religious and political dissidence. In the introduction to Hell, Edward J. O’Brien asserts that despite being a “tragic book” it demonstrates its writer’s hope and belief in the future. I’m not sure about Barbusse’s belief in the future but I would argue that Hell is a triumphant rather than tragic book, which reads like a bold rejection of philosophia Christiana and a homage to secularism, daringly rendering God obsolete. “We are divinely alone,” Barbusse declares toward the end, “the heavens have fallen on our heads…And God Himself, who is all these kinds of heavens in one, has fallen on our heads like thunder, and His infinity is ours,” and thus we hold “the place that God used to occupy” sure in the knowledge “that there is no paradise” and “there is no hell, no inferno except the frenzy of living”. 

Publisher: OneSuch Press
Publication Date: September 2011
Paperback: 136 pages
ISBN: 9780987153289

Evan S. Connell: Makes the ordinary seem extraordinary

There are certain books that capture an era. Mrs Bridge by Evan S. Connell is one of them. Narrated in a superbly rhythmic and shifting tone, the book relays the story of the eponymous character, a wife and a mother living in the verdant suburbs of Kansas City. The straightforward reportage-style narrative is punctured by Mrs Bridge’s personality and partial verbalisation of her innermost thoughts, fears, aspirations and prejudices. Originally published in 1959, Mrs Bridge has recently been reissued in an elegant aureate paperback by Penguin Modern Classics. The book – consisting of 117 vignettes – paints a sympathetic if a somewhat condescending picture of Mrs Bridge, living through the social vicissitudes taking place in post war America. A beacon of old-fashion propriety and manners, she struggles to come to terms with the new ways of the world, her children’s rebelliousness, her husband’s stoicism and the burgeoning realisation that her life is entirely futile. Mrs Bridge, therefore, spends a great deal of time staring into space, oppressed by a sense of expectancy, but “nothing intense, nothing desperate” ever happens and yet she can’t shake the “foreboding that one day, without warning and without pity, all the dear important things would be destroyed.”

Mrs Bridge’s pathological fear that her meticulously orchestrated existence will begin to unravel materialises when her three children desert home, leaving her with a life in which neither her wants nor her expectations seem to have been fulfilled; a life without discernible purpose or direction. Her mundane thoughts and activities are interspersed with a superficial desire for transcendence, but her monologues are almost entirely without self-reflection, or a discernible aptitude for it, denoting her hollow configuration. And yet there was once a moment, a singular moment, when Mrs Bridge “almost apprehended the very meaning of life, and of the stars and planets, yes, and the flight of the earth”.  That moment, however, passed leaving her unchanged, unaffected. In many ways, Mrs Bridge is a heartbreakingly sad book;  a mercilessly realistic parody of an ordinary life, described in concise yet unsparing detail, full of ennui, abiding servitude to social mores and dilettantish misgivings about new world progress. Connell captures the primitiveness and primness of Mrs Bridge with nonpareil realism; her reservation; her insipid nature and social stupefaction, which permeate her insular world. Mrs Bridge has never had an original thought in her life, “she brought up her children very much as she herself had been brought up, and she hoped that when they were spoken of it would be in connection with their nice manners” she believes “without question that when a woman married she was married for the rest of her life” and she perennially reserves judgement on all matters, for fear of betraying her ignorance or speaking out of turn.

Every one of the 117 pieces is rippling with real-life situations, personages and instances, universally identifiable as having belonged to a certain generation. In a chapter called Table Manners, for example, it is revealed that Mrs Bridge “judged people by their shoes and their manners at the table”. In another called Guest Towels we learn that she values these bathroom essentials almost equally to her children, thus finding herself “unaccountably on the verge of tears” when one is unexpectedly soiled.  Mrs Bridge is a traditionalist, who on occasion ponders the practicalities of tradition in a changing world, only to console herself with the thought that “it was the way things were, it was the way things had always been” and therefore it is the way things should always be. It is precise this attitude that Mrs Bridge’s three children find laughable, and it is precisely these mores that they rebel against having had no choice but to accept them in their childhood. Mrs Bridge’s relationship with her husband, the grimly determined lawyer Walter Bridge, is no less awkward. Kind and hardworking, Mr Bridge treats her to embarrassingly opulent gifts – a mink coat, a Lincoln – for her birthdays but is unable to voice his affections when she summons the courage to ask, thus the wife finds her husband “incapable of the kind of declaration she needs”. Mostly, however, Mrs Bridge doesn’t know what she need or indeed wants, now that her social and familial duties have been met; restless and unhappy she spends her time thinking wistfully of the past – ricocheting around her large, elegant and brilliantly arranged home with a sense of boredom and torpor.

Connell has an uncanny ability to make ordinary things seem extraordinary, and incessantly animated.  He manages to evoke completely the tragedy of a woman who has opted for a prudent marriage and family life rather than giving reign to her heart; a woman who while growing up believed “she could get along very nicely without a husband” but who later yielded to convention. He skilfully juxtaposes Mrs Bridge’s life against those of her children; each troubled in its own way, and no one more fulfilling or happy than the other. Inevitably, Mrs Bridge’s story elicits sympathy despite her ostensible hollowness, her humourlessness and her bigotry. In part a satire of the post war social climate, in part an exposition of Middle America, Mrs Bridge is funny and tragic. It is also one of the most accurate and pointed literary portraits of suburban entrapment and subsequent frustration, luring beneath a guise of effortless splendour.  One cannot help but speculate that as a Kansas City native this is something Connell may have witnessed first-hand; people crushed under the weight of their own value systems, oppressed by their own beliefs and social affectations. In fact, this phenomenon is something Connell has always been aware of, once explaining: “I have a friend, very Southern, to whom I offered a set of dishes I didn’t need. He did need them because he had just bought an apartment, but he couldn’t bring himself to say yes or no. He had been taught from childhood that one doesn’t answer such questions directly. I’m limited in similar ways. All of us probably know the feeling.”

Connell’s right, all of us probably do know the feeling but some of us can put it into words better than others. This is what makes Mrs Bridge brilliant; that and Connell’s ability to merge his life experience with his work, drawing on his formative years growing up in a similar upper middle-class household with parents who valued courtesy, cleanliness, honesty, thrift, consideration, and other such qualities, above emotional ties with each other and their children. And perhaps that’s the real tragedy of Mrs Bridge, the realisation that her subsumed passions and feelings have left her both lonely and alone. Mrs Bridge is a perspicacious rendering of a bygone era, droll yet distressing, sad yet satirical; a book to rival others by any Kansas City author. Today, Connell lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico where he moved in 1989. Over the past 50 years, this seldom remembered writer has published nearly 20 books but Mrs Bridge remains his crowning achievement, which has secured his place among the greats of American literary tradition.

Peter Ackroyd: The temperate biographer

The Victorians were a peculiar lot and no one more so than Wilkie Collins. His globular head was too large for his frame, his legs a little too short, he liked to ride the omnibus, chronically complained of nervous maladies, always wore a “florid fur coat,” and a “rakishly tied Belcher scarf,” bickered with waiters over pourboires and disparaged what he called “the claptrap morality of the 19th century”. The latter is, perhaps, what distinguishes him most from his contemporaries as Peter Ackroyd points out in his biography of this most “sweetest tempered of all the Victorian novelists”. A progenitor of the “popular novel” Collins left a large and varied fictional output, upon which Ackroyd draws in order to show how the writer’s life is inexorably intertwined with his work. This line of narrative is both potentially lucrative and illuminating yet in this case derogated by the biographer’s deadpan reportage style. Collins’ most intimate relationships, apart from that with Charles Dickens, are largely unexplored and given little sustained appraisal. Certainly, his family and women make an appearance, but Dickens is almost always at the fore of the page whether he is lamenting Collins’ choice of mistress, his slatternly comportment or offering grudging praise.

For a while Collins was Dickens’ preferred companion, with the two men often socialising, holidaying and collaborating together. But by the end of Dickens’ life, Collins was so disenchanted with his former mentor he politely declined to attend his funeral. The cause of the fissures in their relationship is unknown or at least undocumented here. Yet once bound together by success, a mutually assiduous work ethic and a somewhat questionable reputation, the two men eventually parted ways. Ackroyd deliberates on this fact by stipulating that Collins may have taken offense to Dickens’ professional haughtiness, but one cannot be sure. What is well documented, however, is that Dickens once speaking of his friend in a literary capacity said: “Collins was a master of plot rather than of character.” Ackroyd elaborates further suggesting Collins was “an adult in craft and an adolescent in sentiment”.  But if so a rather rebellious one, who wrote about the breaking down of class barriers, the inequality of marriage laws and women who defied 19th century stereotypes. Collins was intent upon “exploring the female sensibility in ways foreign to other Victorian novelists, and he created heroines quite unlike those of his male contemporaries”. Something else he was largely unsurpassed in were his plots, the “perfectly calibrated mechanisms,” which both fascinated and beleaguered readers as they periodically agonized to find out what happens next.

Ackroyd’s work, unlike that of his subject, lacks precisely this quality. And, for all the book’s outward elegance and promise, its success is stymied by the narrative’s perfunctory haste and the dearth of dramatic action and climax. This is made particularly conspicuous because Collins’ highly-wrought personal life contained incident and intrigue in abundance. As an expert of clandestine relationships and cloaked identities in his work, he covered his own tracks with equal skill. Collins had two illegitimate lifelong affairs, with women he refused to marry, once describing the institution as a “ridiculous dilemma”. His maverick views made their way into every one of his books, which contain cogent and sustained repudiations of the status quo. And this is where Ackroyd thrives, in his devotion to show parallels between Collins’ life and his work as he points out that Basil, for example, “alludes to an unhappy love affair” based on Collins’ own reminiscences; The Woman in White is set in Hampstead Green where the young writer and his family lived in 1826; and Hide and Seek depicts the cheap delights of a town “suffused with glitter and gas…the chop-houses, the gin shops, the cookshops, the burlesque shows” which Collins knew quite intimately. Ackroyd excels at joining up the dots to show a comprehensive picture of how Collins’ life enriched his work, but fails to make it as extraordinary or as interesting as it really was.

Speaking of himself Collins once said that he was “averse to respectability in all its forms”. This was at great variance with the character of his father, the minor painter William Collins, who was said to be “the epitome of respectability and propriety”. His liberated attitude then had to have come from his mother, Harriet Geddes, who was a “woman of remarkable mental culture”. The writer did, however, like his father, “possess a painter’s eye” which, as Ackroyd points out, he later used in writing books that came to “resemble a series of pictures rather than a sequence of scenes” demonstrating great “sympathy between character and landscape”. Not only that, Collins had a knack for elaborate and ingenious story lines, which kept the public “reading, reading, reading”. In doing so, he established a new precedent, which saw the first edition of The Woman in White sell-out on publication day, quickly prompting merchandise lines and nation-wide fan clubs. It is now rather strange to think that the “novelist who invented sensation” was originally “consigned to a career in commerce,” stranger yet, that this once much loved and much admired writer is now seldom remembered.

There was a time when Collins was said to have had “the brightest future” of all his contemporaries, and yet today his legacy occupies a marginal place in English letters. Ackroyd’s biography doesn’t attempt to explain why that is, or why this fine writer, whose work was once  a “spring of the English detective mystery,” has been largely reduced to a second-rate scribe. Ackroyd does, however, suggests to the contrary saying Collins is “still a living presence in English literature,” which is debatable at best, even if his works remain “powerful and ingenious, striking and persuasive”.  William Wilkie Collins was born on 8th January 1834 in Marlybone, London. Soon after, the family moved to Hampstead Green and was enlarged by the arrival of Wilkie’s younger brother, Charles Allston Collins. By his own account, Collins’ childhood was unexceptional if  happy. Collins took to travelling around Europe from an early age, where he received much of his informal education through experiences “quite different from that of middle-class England”. Stimulated and transformed by these experiences he transferred them onto paper and “delighted in violating Victorian convention”. Sadly, one would never guess from the temperate biographical account on offer.

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