“Respect is a big limestone library. Self-respect is a hot dog cart outside it.”

Edinburgh-based novelist Nora Chassler ‘breaks all moulds’, according to William Boyd — a quote which seems particularly apt for her new publication, Madame Bildungsroman’s Optimistic Worldview. Billed as a collection of ‘fragments, pensées and table-talk’, the book is an extended meditation on life and literature, narrated to (and sometimes by) a life-sized papier-mâché mannequin. Read on for a taste of what to expect, and if you’re suitably intrigued, you can order the paperback or limited-edition hardback here.

Nora Chassler at her home in Edinburgh.

Magic Cast

No sooner had Madame Bildungsroman uttered the sentence ‘I refuse to speak in the first person’ than things started appearing on her papier-mâché full-body cast, initially on the left forearm. The first words were: cough syrup, tape measure, refills.


A Tree Falls in the Park

A big old tree cracked in half in this morning’s gales. Dark, striated and lumpy outside, its inside was peach-coloured. On my way to town I watched fire engines arrive and wee men jump out in yellow vests. They walked slowly around the three-storey fallen tree, scratching their chins.

My mother always said, ‘You never know, a flower pot could fly off a sill and brain you’. In high winds I feel like a feather. I huddle in doorways and race to the next shelter. I’m scared I’ll be lifted and carried off.

Walking past the wreck on my way home the wind had died down. The fire engines were still there, silent and still, lights flashing like Christmas trees. I didn’t see any of the wee men.


Gratitude

Successful people can be very superstitious. They worship causation: their understanding of it is poor. (Their insight having paused at the many-armed demi-god of personal charms, prejudices, protocols, narratives, verboten foods, family ties, haunted trees etc.)

No one understands the real value of luck like the luckless. The lack of which can grant great freedom: superstition’s power has been disproven so many times that they no longer spare it a thought — therein lies a shortcut to a lower tier of enlightenment.

Kind of like one of those bonus holes in a pinball machine, the one that gives you an extra ball.


One Summer

I went to Moscow in 1992. We rode on a sleeper train from Prague. A fat engineering student who shared our room also shared the jam his mother made with us; he put it in our tea. In the middle of the night we pulled into a barn where they lifted the train high above the tracks, and put it back down again. On the walls, there were peace posters with doves and olive branches — in Russian, obviously. Three old ladies told me I was pretty — inside and out — when, in the morning, as I smoked out the train window, I stood aside to let them pass in the narrow coach hall. I had a shaved head at that time. In Moscow, we stayed in a communal apartment. I drank too much vodka and was terrified to leave our room, a beautiful old ballroom with dozens of mosquitos on the white walls. In the kitchen, one of the tenants, a pretty anchorwoman, had left a raw joint of beef out. I couldn’t believe an anchorwoman lived in a communal apartment. She left it for two days.


FRAGILE

When we were young there were more boxes and crates with FRAGILE stickers on them; giant video cameras packed tight in grey foam, synthesizers in wooden trunks. You could sit on them on the corner or the subway platform. Am I alone in not wanting everything shrunk as small as possible? Where is everything?


Abstraction

Your thoughts aren’t in your head.


CostaStarbucksNeroeternity

Suddenly, I understand why I avoid them. It’s not a snob thing (as you insist). This is the fiction version of the real living room of most people’s childhoods: men sitting alone soothed, aroused and angry (to varying degrees) among groups of women, gossiping, with babies, chatting, ordering cakes and bathtubs of hot milk.

The women’s chatter is so unimportant, in such clean and certain tones — it’s somehow immoral.

And everyone — except that very skinny Chinese guy who ordered a double espresso to go, put three straws of sugar in it and ran away — seems very comfortable. Too comfortable!

Ok… maybe it is a snob thing, or worse, misanthropy.

Just tell me one thing: why does it take so fucking long and cost so fucking much?

And while I’m here waiting, you know: the exponential rise in prescriptions of anti-anxiety SSRIs coincides nicely with these sinkfuls of coffee they sneak in with your milk. Happy coincidence? I doubt it!

Ok, I have my giant cappuccino now. I’ll be on my merry way.


Xanax, or Man, Would You Have Loved These!

You take one at 10pm because you are scared and want to sleep. A warm blur of plans free of doubt — then, the heavenly drop of a feather; you don’t wake once in the night (usually it’s about thirty times). Hey, it’s tomorrow! 10am and your eyes blink open like a doll’s. Throughout the day, a nagging loss; where are your dreams?


Lou Reed’s Liver

How bad could he have been if Laurie Anderson loved him?


The End of the School Run

My daughter pointed out that the route we take across the park has changed slightly. She said: you overshot again. Arthur’s Seat was now in the middle of my course and it used to be on the right. I said, I suspect it’s some atavistic thing; I’m following a shift in the sun’s trajectory. She said, that makes a lot of sense, given our purposes. Unaccountably flustered, I defended myself: well, it was probably a very useful way of making assignations in the distant past! Then I pivoted into line, and was relieved when the subject changed to that pug we pass who pees and shits at the same time.

A little further on, as we walked through the growing real estate development, I told her that the last patch of sky would soon be gone from that section of our walk. The final building is going up, filling the missing tooth of the street. She asked, where does air go when we build and build? I told her I didn’t know; I suspected air couldn’t go anywhere. I thought, in windows? nowhere? up? She said, I like caverns anyway.


Channeling Frank Zappa or Guru School Drop-out

Never give me any money. I’m a chancer.


Guilt

Everyone wants to believe they are innocent, some more than others — and they are easy to find. Next, accuse them of being guilty and low. Now, watch them suffer. (Added bonus: they won’t flee. They’ll stay right where they are, trying to prove themselves to you.)

Who would do such a thing? Ministers, for one.


Meet Me Anywhere but at the Book Fair

When writers are in the presence of their fans they can’t see straight. A newly-adored writer is a fun house mirror for readers’ projections; a writer for whom it’s old hat is a corpse strapped into a roller coaster.


Origin

There once was a frog named Suzanne. Who ate all the bugs in the pond. Her tummy swelled and her pad buckled under. For a time she was swallowed, into the green. She sank like a stone.

But after a month Suzanne bobbed up, a dead frog.

A tow-headed girl came along. She fashioned a stretcher from twigs. The sun was bright over the pond and the dead frog’s flesh was like a dirty stained glass window.

Upon Suzanne the girl laid hands — with no luck. So she set about cutting the frog up. She spread her entrails on a folding beach chair and studied them like stars.

The tow-headed girl is a prize-winning scientist today. She continues to dream, unconsciously, of healing with magic.


Losing

Christmas is such a cheery season, especially for one as upbeat as our hollow heroine, Mme B. An eye is drawn on anywhere, and she’s pulled to the kitchen, feeling like a ghost in the red Christmas lights. The papier-mâché effigy reflects — propped up by the table, over an empty mug of pretend coffee — on how she never hopes anymore. She hopes for health for those she loves, and happiness — but not for things of your world, as the sole of her right foot puts it. Her strange inside-writing-men are using crappy pens today: old striating magic markers. Rising from my reading-station like a suitor asking for her dead hand, I return to my chair and drink my real coffee. Look at her: letters appearing and disappearing on her paper body like clouds moving across the sky; string mop signifying my hair. I feel so close to her but I wish she said other things.


Sad Truth #57,262

The things publishers look for are not inside books.


In the Disappearing Process

I guess it’s a bit like Photoshopping to produce graininess, or black and white: these were elements of film. They are not integral to digital photography. Why add them in? We need to find each medium’s unique strengths. Though we might start by asking if digital cameras, smartphones and software are mediums in the traditional sense.


Technology

Maybe I’m confusing ‘medium’ with ‘technology’.


Etymologies Don’t Always Help

‘Technology’ comes from the word ‘skill’. ‘Medium’ from ‘middle’. That really cleared things up…


Why I don’t daydream

I’ll write a bestseller by Darwina James. It will be called The Cougar, and be a garden variety wish-fulfillment fantasy — with bells on! It will raise the tastes of the atavistic saddos who loved Fifty Shades and be loosely based on that woman who is directing the movie (the irony won’t be lost on her). The writing will have to be toned down; I’ll use ‘times’ for ‘zeitgeist’ — this kind of thing — but that won’t matter. It will be carefully plotted, just the right amount of scenes without promise of sex; it will be neatly linear, with a very happy ending that seals it tight — like a can of tomatoes! And I will be fêted and rich and even have the chance to be a real-life cougar myself.

Now that I am thinking about it I can’t see any advantages this plan would incur for me or the reader.


Why I Can’t Look at Old Photos

They make me cry. I want to go back. It isn’t that I was happier then — it’s the moment being gone. The me in it. The you. The old road through the park. The demolished house. The gone shop. Are you like this? Do you want to go back? I want to see all the things I didn’t see; I even want to see the things I did. I want the moment again and again and again. I’d never be bored. I guess that’s my greed. If only it were for something possible. Then maybe I’d understand satisfaction.

Anyway, I have a friend who says we do and will. We will see our children as babies. See each other for the first time. If that’s true, then that’s ok.


Tell Me a Little About Yourself

I like it when the writer lets me in and tells me what they are doing, or trying to do. Especially when they are smart, especially when they are unsure. Why is this seen as weakness? It’s the opposite. And because Art is Great, self-consciousness can be made beautiful. Why are you afraid of questions? Then again, maybe it’s just in the novel that self-consciousness is awkward. And we all know the novel is a lower artform. Literature’s pop song. These days even TV shows are better.


Byron

I love the fact that Byron ate soy sauce. It makes me so happy. It makes my heart sing.


Little Respect, Less Power

Respect is one of those words that appears when concrete examples won’t do; always a bad sign — a word whose power depends on being abstract. All meaning is concrete first. Anyway, back to the subject: shouldn’t respect just be a constant? Shouldn’t we impregnate all details with respect? Respect the tomato on your sandwich! Respect all dogs — even that poor Chihuahua with the over-active thyroid and permanently broken jaw! Respect everyone you don’t know! (And never make the mistake of doing so by thinking they are like you.) (And for the naysayers out there, don’t worry, there’s plenty of time for people to lose your respect — so what’s the hurry?) Back to the main point: regrettably the term respect is most often pulled from the thaumaturge’s hat — it’s a good trick and restores his power over the audience. But what he’s after, what he calls respect, isn’t. It’s submission; it’s suspension of your own self-respect, of what you know to be true. For this reason, any request for respect should be looked at very closely. If it requires that you sacrifice your self-respect — hit the road. Leave the theatre. Demand a refund. And no — self-respect isn’t very abstract. I’m not sure why. Respect is a big limestone library. Self-respect is a hot dog cart outside it.


My Corpus

For years I did things I couldn’t stomach and my stomach hurt all the time.


Madame Subplot

The proudest moment of my life was when someone read out something I had written that she thought had been written by someone else — but was happy to take the credit for. You can see why normal narratives evade me.


The Enlightenment

About a hundred years ago there was a witch who lived in Edinburgh, on the top floor of a tenement. She’d lived in the same flat since she was a wee girl, when it was new-built.

There was a small pantry with a door behind the kitchen. Her father and her brother and her husband were not allowed in. Her mother had died and the witch had two sons. Her husband and brother and father had done very well in their business; they owned three tailor-shops. They could have afforded to move to a flat on the first floor but they believed the top flat had brought them luck: a house full of boys and wealth. The fact that the witch’s mum had died young didn’t seem like bad luck. It was God gaining an angel.

Anyway, in her cupboard the witch … did nothing really. She didn’t light candles; she recited no spells. She squatted on the floor and closed her eyes and was able to remember life in the womb. When I say remember, I mean she could feel how she felt: suspended and warm, always ready for a reverse movement, intentionless. Whether this practice — which she undertook for about an hour a day — brought her family their good luck is anyone’s guess. I’m just telling you what she told me when I met her this morning in the pantry. As she spoke, the drier ran behind her.

I asked her what her name was and it was hard to hear her over the din when she replied, ‘The thought at the end.’


This was an extract from Madame Bildungsroman’s Optimistic Worldview by Nora Chassler, published in July 2017 by Valley Press.