September 1, 2013

Endings – and empathy

Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 7:00 am by Susan

When John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman came out in 1969 with its alternative endings, his publishers received angry letters from readers assuming there had been a printing error. In my new novel Given the Choice, I started with a female character who is complicated. She’s intelligent, creative and capable of generosity, but she also resorts to lying when the going gets tough.

My original ending for my character Marion involved her in only minimal development. She gains a modicum of self-knowledge, but significant blind spots remain and we are left to ponder the problems these may cause her and those she is close to in the future. I liked the idea of a messy, inconclusive, ‘real-life’ ending where people don’t necessarily learn the lessons they should – but the readers I showed my first draft to wanted more of an ‘outcome’ at the close of the book.

I thought about Charles Dickens and how he reworked the ending to Great Expectations when fellow writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton complained it was too sad. Dickens liked his original ending precisely because it went against the usual novelistic convention of the couple marrying and living happily ever after. In it, Pip briefly encounters the newly remarried Estella and, while it is clear she has changed, there is no hint that the pair will meet again. Dickens’s second ending is more romantically satisfying. It takes place in the grounds of Miss Havisham’s house (where as a young boy Pip was encouraged to fall in love with Estella who was trained to resist him) and the final words – ‘I saw the shadow of no parting from her’ – offer the hope that the pair will be united.

Literary critic Frank Kermode has a theory about why readers crave certain types of ending. In his book, The Sense of an Ending, he argues that we are born and die ‘in the middle of things’, and that stories with their start and stop points give us fictive ‘concords’ we can adopt when thinking about ourselves. What is important about the end of a story, Kermode suggests, is that we see the whole trajectory – a thing we cannot do with our own lives.

Given the Choice is set in the contemporary art and classical music worlds and one of my characters is a French painter, Jean-Claude. He is working on a sequence of paintings in which the subject stays the same, but where the effect changes because a new element is introduced, or because one of the components is moved to a slightly different place.

I realised that if I used this as pretext I could show how what happens is often the result of contingency – an unexpected additional factor, a difference of timing, an alteration in mood. So Given the Choice now has three ‘outcomes’: my original muted ‘real-life’ version, an ending in which Marion gets her come-uppance, and one where things work out well (if unexpectedly!). It’s the reader who’s given the choice of which ending seems right.

Marion is a sassy businesswoman and runs an agency for artists. Damien Hirst makes a cameo appearance and I had fun inventing a whacky art installation. One of the things that intrigues me about contemporary art is the way the nature of fame has changed. An artist’s reputation used to depend on talent, training and building up a body of work that was sold through galleries to private collectors. Today, the art world is closer to fashion and advertising with the artist as a marketable brand. The most successful artists shock and their work is instantly recognisable. The debate about whether art should receive sponsorship or rely solely on sales has spread into music, literature, film, drama, dance.

The timeline for Given the Choice is the period leading up to the catastrophic crashes that occurred on the world financial markets in 2007-2008. This illusory wealth offered an interesting commentary on the art world’s commercialism. Bankers and city brokers are after all major consumers. Another important character in the novel is a young classical pianist from Estonia who brings with him very different ideas about how art should be funded and indeed what art is for. A further reason for giving Marion money is that it makes the choice she faces a straight one. Unlike most women in her position, she does not (at least initially) have to worry about its financial implications.

There’s a great deal of stress placed – by reviewers, by prize-giving juries – on how empathetic characters in books are. I have to admit, I’m suspicious of this. The notion of empathy in reading grew out of the German term Einfühlung (which literally means ‘feeling into’), and gave rise to a definition of empathy as a form of projection. Theodor Lipps, for instance (and his approach is typical), describes the process as follows: ‘we experience the other’s feelings as our own, because we project our own feelings onto the other.’ It’s always seemed to me a dangerous exchange.

Hélène Cixous warns us as readers to guard against our desire to turn others into comforting reflections of ourselves. Instead, she urges us to venture towards the other in literature in order to expand imaginatively what we know. She quotes Franz Kafka angrily retorting in a letter to a friend that he doesn’t want books that will make him happy. In a memorable phrase, he says he wants books to be ‘the axe for the frozen sea within us’. I agree with Franz Kafka. If we allow ourselves to become too wrapped up in the characters we read, we risk wanting things to turn out a certain way instead of letting the book jolt us into a different way of thinking.

Given the Choice is published this month by Cillian Press

August 1, 2013

Given the Choice

Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , , , , , at 1:33 pm by Susan

Sandy Beach Olivia KrimpasI am delighted to announce that my new novel, Given the Choice, will be published by independent publisher Cillian Press next month. Set in the contemporary art and music worlds, the cover features original artwork by Olivia Krimpas.

Next month, I’ll be blogging with more details about the novel, but for now here is a taster.

In this passage, French painter Jean-Claude is in New York for the opening of his show. He has come to Hoboken, and is looking out across the Hudson River at the night skyline.

“At this distance, the city seemed a fantasy creation, an enchantment conjured by a magician from the sea. Jean-Claude lit his cigarette and walked along the esplanade, noting the extraordinary crenellation of illuminated buildings, the glittering jetties that stuck out from the shore like afterthoughts. The esplanade led him past a clump of shadowy trees and round a slight bend. The city’s brilliance, he saw, derived from millions of individual lights, from the chequerboards of lit up windows that formed the facade of building after building. Most were interior lights, but there were also bands of colour: a glowing orange top floor, a tower in a tracery of red neon, a glass-front that sparkled an ethereal green-blue. Light hurled itself upwards into the sky, leaked onto the surface of the water where it settled in channels that appeared solid enough to walk on.”

Moving About Olivia Krimpas

In this passage, Marion, who runs an agency for artists, listens to a young Estonian pianist play an excerpt from one of the many pieces composer Olivier Messiaen wrote based on birdsong.

“Peeter placed his hands over the keys. Suddenly the piano was alive. Marion settled back in her chair and closed her eyes. She did not know what she was listening to but within moments she was transported out of her surroundings into a dense jungle of sound. The piano was no longer a music-making machine but the source of a magical power. She could hear the swooping calls of birds as they darted through treetops or skimmed and dived in a free expanse of air. The bare walls of the practice room had metamorphosed into an enchanted forest, teeming with flashes of brilliant plumage and abrupt, raucous caws. As she opened her eyes she was reminded of the monastery of San Marco in Florence, its plain white cells transfigured by Fra Angelico’s art. She thought of the ritual of Peeter’s daily practice. The long hours he spent at the keyboard required the same devotion the monks expended in prayer. When Peeter finally stopped playing she felt as if he had taken her to a world beyond herself, where she had glimpsed something extraordinary. It was a feeling she sometimes had when she looked at art.”

Olivia Krimpas

For more details, please check back on 1st September