Illustration of ‘The Round Table and the Holy Grail’, from a manuscript of ‘Lancelot-Grail’ written by Michel Gantelet, completed in 1470

The Makers of Britain 

Nicola Griffith reflects on the literary ancestors of her forthcoming novel ‘Hild’

When I was nine, the library I went to divided books not by age-appropriateness but by shelf height. If I could reach it, I could read it. The books I remember most, the ones I fell in love with—the ones I could reach—were very much realist novels, but set in the long ago. My favourites were those about the so-called Dark Ages. The period spanning the fifth to tenth centuries—now known as the Early Medieval Age, Sub-Roman Britain, or Late Antiquity depending on your academic focus—was a time of massive change. Its peoples—overlapping tribes, nations, cultures, and polities—witnessed the kind of rapid and violent upheaval now often considered unique to the twenty-first century.

Rosemary Sutcliff and Henry Treece wrote about this period for both adults and children, swapping back and forth from book to book. I’m not sure I knew the difference. I am sure I didn’t care. I gobbled them up indiscriminately.

Two particular novels marked me deeply. They focused on the Matter of Britain, that is, King Arthur. They chose to draw Arthur as a real man, a Roman Briton, a war leader of the fifth century fighting to hold aloft the guttering flame of Roman culture—literature, the rule of law—against the darkness represented by the barbarian hordes.

Sutcliff’s The Lantern Bearers (1959) won the Carnegie Medal. Its early themes might be New Adult—Aquila has to make a life-changing choice, to decide for himself where his loyalties lie—but then, in my opinion, we enter wholly adult territory. Aquila’s sister, Flavia, is raped and abducted by Saxons. Aquila becomes a Jutish thrall for three years. When the Jutes join the Saxons, Flavia helps her brother escape but chooses to remain behind with her now-husband and young son—to become, effectively, Saxon. Aquila joins the Romano-British resistance in the fight against both the indigenous barbarian Celts and the invading Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. This resistance is led by Ambrosius and his young nephew, Artos.

Aquila must wrestle with hate and aging, forgiveness and mortality, change and loss. To be one of the lantern bearers—to hold the light aloft long enough for something in the barbarians to catch light—is never a simple choice. Sutcliff shows us Aquila’s world, makes us feel his worry and his struggle.

What strikes me most now about Sutcliff’s work are two things. The first is her verbs. A bat didn’t fly, it “darted by, pricking the dusk with its needle-thin hunting cry.” And twilight doesn’t fall, it “comes lapping up the valley.” Nature is an active part of the characters’ world; it influences people and their choices. The second is how oddly hands-off she is about the body, particularly sex. We see and hear it, but we don’t taste it or feel it on our skin. When it comes to sex and food and injury, we think, we understand, we accept alongside the characters, but we don’t hunger or burn, we don’t writhe and yearn. Her people are more concerned with ideals: truth, or justice, or the defense of civilization from the barbarian. Their goals, their morality, rarely waver.

Henry Treece’s The Great Captains (1956) is different. Treece was a poet. His focus was more on the individual than on the wider society. His Artos is a grim farmer getting through life the best he knows how in the midst of great change. He wasn’t born a leader and he doesn’t particularly want to be one—he wants to plough his fields in peace. He is motivated by physical survival. Treece’s world is visceral. His swords are heavy and dull, his cloaks stink of sheep’s grease, his fires smoke badly and go out in the rain. His hero is an ordinary man whose persistence and doggedness keep him alive. He has to fight, internally and externally, to find and then maintain his moral compass in the chaos.

My character, Hild, was born fourteen hundred years ago, in a time of illiterate warlords and petty fiefdoms. Might equaled right. By the time she died she was a counselor to kings—heads of literate proto-states with the rudiments of a legal code—and the teacher of five bishops. Rosemary Sutcliff and Henry Treece showed me how to she might have survived, even led, that transformation.

And so, to make Hild, I went back to where I came from. I stole Sutcliff’s love and encyclopedic knowledge of nature, her active verbs, her sense of great human movements and the struggle of light versus dark. From Treece I took his poet’s sensibility and firm grounding in the body. From both I borrowed the oldest themes of all: growth and change and becoming oneself and relying on one’s own internal compass.

Nicola Griffith is a native of Yorkshire, England, where she earned her beer money teaching women’s self-defense, fronting a band, and arm-wrestling in bars. In 1993 she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Her novels are Ammonite, Slow River, The Blue Place, Stay, and Always. Her writing has appeared in Nature, New Scientist, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other places. Her awards include the Tiptree, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards, the Premio Italia, and the Lambda Literary Award (six times)—most recently for her memoir, And Now We Are Going to Have a Party. Griffith lives with her partner, the writer Kelley Eskridge, in Seattle, Washington. You can find Nicola online at and @nicolaz. FSG will publish Hild on Nov. 12, 2013.

Next Story — From the Mixed-Up Files of Mary Kay Zuravleff: E. L. Konigsburg
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From the Mixed-Up Files of Mary Kay Zuravleff: E. L. Konigsburg 

In grade school, I wrote a yearly book report on From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg. Although I read plenty of books, there was only one I ever wanted to report on. My essays reached different audiences: when the book was published (fourth grade), we lived in New York; in fifth grade, we’d moved back to Oklahoma; and in sixth grade, I fashioned the book into a play that my best friend Lori and I performed at school and the local library.

I love an uncountable number of details in Konigsburg’s book, starting with the gender-neutral author’s name “E. L.,” a mystery in itself. The book flap did not out her as Elaine Lobi Konigsburg; in fact, the bio avoided pronouning the author. In those pre-Internet days, we could entertain him/her theories for as long as it took to work over a Sugar Daddy Pop. And the title! I always hoped some adult would condescendingly ask “What are you reading?” so I could unfurl that mega-title. It boasts the same number of syllables as “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” which I’d been singing since Mary Poppins came out.

But back to Konigsburg’s yarn, in which two kids run away from home, live among great art, and tackle a mystery. The book thrillingly begins: “Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away. That is, running away in the heat of anger with a knapsack on her back. She didn’t like discomfort; even picnics were untidy and inconvenient: all those insects and the sun melting the icing on the cupcakes. Therefore, she decided that her leaving home would not be just running from somewhere but would be running to somewhere. To a large place, a comfortable place, an indoor place, and preferably a beautiful place. And that’s why she decided upon the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.”

Our 12-year-old heroine wants to escape “being straight-A’s Claudia Kincaid,” giving no thought to her family’s worries about her—and hold it right there. In the course of sharing my favorite childhood book, have I uncovered an early inspiration for my new novel? After all, Man Alive! is essentially the story of a man escaping his routine as a respected child psychiatrist, giving no thought to his family’s concerns or even income.

My book begins, “Everyone deserves a vacation from himself, Owen Lerner thinks, on the last day of his.” Dr. Lerner has this thought as he’s driving the family to their beach burger joint. And then he is struck by lightning while feeding the meter. Just as Claudia Kincaid wants to go to rather than just away from, Owen Lerner believes his accident transports him to a better place rather than away from the workaday world. In those few electrified seconds, he experiences compassion and understanding he has never known in his neurotypical life; despite his injuries, he prefers this altered reality.

After receiving school credit for two essays and a play, have I just crafted a book-report-inspired novel? Maybe if I’d written on the Bible stories I repeatedly heard or on movie soundtracks I memorized, I would have reached the same conclusion, that the stories and syntax that loop through our childhood become our raw material. It’s humbling to recognize how many “original thoughts” can be traced to a source—although, what a source. Perhaps the literary world, having lost E. L. Konigsburg just this April, would approve of my taking the baton from her. And running away with it.

Mary Kay Zuravleff is the author of the forthcoming Man Alive!, as well as The Bowl Is Already Broken, which The New York Times praised as “a tart, affectionate satire of the museum world’s bickering and scheming,” and The Frequency of Souls, which the Chicago Tribune deemed “a beguiling and wildly inventive first novel.” Honors for her work include the American Academy’s Rosenthal Award and the James Jones First Novel Award, and she has been nominated for the Orange Prize. She lives in Washington, D.C., where she serves on the board of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation and is a cofounder of the D.C. Women Writers Group.

Next Story — The Child Who Loved Sea Urchins More Than Street Urchins 
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The Child Who Loved Sea Urchins More Than Street Urchins 

Adam Foulds

Reading stories didn’t interest me much as a child. My imagination didn’t quicken at dramatic situations or twists of plot. I suppose I did take in stories in the form of TV shows but that’s not why I watched them. My pleasure in The A-Team, Knight Rider and Blue Thunder had more to do with the thrilling hardware, the guns and vehicles I could fantasise about possessing. Afterwards, I went out into the garden full of speed and flight and power. No, stories came later. What I liked reading as a child were facts.

There was a book in my school library that I particularly liked. It was a child’s introduction to marine biology, a large shiny hardback fabulously illustrated with underwater photographs. I sank into its deep blue silences. I floated above Technicolor coral reefs. I imagined myself as the diver pictured hanging there, eyes straining inside his mask, hair floating upwards, lips distorted around his mouthpiece, a chrome column of bubbles rising from the top of his head towards the rippling light of the surface. I remember many of its images: a puffer fish, spherical as a golf ball with alarm, covered in bristling spines. Extruding from its cave, a moray eel showed its frightening tiny teeth. Anemones swayed their rubbery tentacles. A shoal of sardines turned all at once, a cone of staring eyes and reflective silver skin.

A year or two later I became a bird watcher and from then until I discovered poetry at the age of fifteen, I intended to become a zoologist of some kind, or perhaps a natural history cameraman working for the BBC. I liked being out in the countryside, in woods or by the Thames estuary, with my binoculars and telescope. There are things about the activity of bird watching, that searching, lingering and looking, that I think have passed directly into my life as a writer and reader. What you see through binoculars is factual, accurate, but it is also enhanced. To look through magnifying lenses is like picking up a book; it is to leap into the world whilst standing still. The image that you see has an intensified, glassy lustre, but is simply the world as it is. Great writing offers a similar experience, little jolts of sharply revealed reality, what the poet Wallace Stevens referred to as ‘sudden rightnesses.’

When James Joyce writes ‘the sluggish cream wound curdling spirals through her tea’ or D. H. Lawrence mentions the kangaroo’s ‘little loose hands, and drooping Victorian shoulders’ or Saul Bellow refers to ‘the heavy flashing of the river,’ I feel that jolt and am delighted beyond measure.

I feel released, connected to the world, to my own experience. I see. I am alert, alive. Of course, this is only one of the possible attributes of literary writing. There is the subtle registering of change over time. There is fiction’s capacity to describe individuals’ negotiations with society and other complex relationships. There are limitless ideas it can entertain. But for me this fresh arrest of sensory experience is the essential and deepest pleasure. Joseph Conrad suggested it was for him too when he wrote, ‘My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see.’ Without that, the other truths a book may have to disclose or its carefully patterned events are insufficiently manifest, insufficiently real.

A final quotation, from Theory of Prose by the Russian Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky: ‘Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.’ When writing does that, it is as good as seeing a hen harrier in strong sunlight after a long day’s searching or scuba diving, weightless and entranced, over a reef.

Adam Foulds is a British novelist and poet. His most recent books are The Quickening Maze, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Encore Award and the European Union Prize for Literature, and The Broken Word, which won the Costa Poetry Award and the Somerset Maugham Award. He has recently been awarded the E.M. Forster Award by the American Academy of Arts and Letters and named one of Granta’s ‘Best of Young British Novelists.’ Farrar, Straus and Giroux will publish his new novel, In the Wolf’s Mouth, Spring 2014.

Next Story — A ‘Tinderbox’ Built on ‘Embers’
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A ‘Tinderbox’ Built on ‘Embers’

by Lisa Gornick

I can no longer recall how I stumbled upon Sándor Márai’s exquisite short novel Embers, which is set on a single day when the 75-year-old General is visited at his woodland castle by his nemesis, his childhood friend Konrad, whom he has not seen in 41 years. Like the first prelude in Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier or Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid,” it possesses that rare concert of content and form that makes a work feel bottomless and eternal. I’ve read it now half a dozen times.

Strangely, though, I never consciously thought about Embers during the writing of my own novel Tinderbox, so going back to it now, I am surprised by the depth of its influence on me thematically and structurally. An important element in Embers is the love between a nursemaid, Nini, now 91, who came to the castle at 16 to suckle the infant General, and the General, whom Nini has tended ever since: “They were neither brother and sister nor lovers. But there are other ties, numinous ones, and of these they were aware. There is a kind of consanguinity both closer and more powerful than that of twins in a mother’s womb. Life had melded their days and their nights, each knew the other’s body just as each knew the other’s dreams.” In my novel, a troubled young housekeeper comes to work for a troubled New York family, also with numinous ties, though of a darker cast than those between Nini and the General.

Márai emboldened me to trust that a novel can have a tight frame—in Embers, a day—while telling the story of an entire life and era. Embedded in its first half are the tales of the meeting of the General’s parents at a ball in Paris and of the General’s childhood and youth, most of which is spent with Konrad. There is no sense of a dichotomy between front story and back story, of plot line and flashback. I’ve only read the novel in its translation by Carol Brown Janeway, so it is possible that there are differences in the Hungarian original, but in the book as I know it, Márai eschews the use of the past perfect, that signal of the flashback. Instead, using a simple past tense, he leisurely tells the story of the unhappy marriage of the General’s parents: his father, the Hungarian Officer of the Guards; his mother, a French countess who weeps to her new husband, “Darling, I feel dizzy. There is no end to all of this,” while they traverse the mountains and desiccated plains and barren hamlets to reach the father’s castle where he hunts every day of the year “as if he were set on killing someone.”

When Konrad arrives at the castle after his long absence, the narrative proceeds in simple past tense. The men converse about Konrad’s years in the tropics, which he says changes a man so that “inside everything looks different.” “Tell me what’s inside,” the General asks. With this query, the narrative shifts into the present tense, where it remains for the rest of the novel as though only now, when the General invites Konrad to speak his heart and then proceeds to do so himself, can he exit the mausoleum in which he has lived since he and Konrad last saw one another.

Revisiting Embers with Tinderbox complete, I am struck that even my title owes a metaphoric debt to Márai’s. Embers tells the story of lives and an era as they turn to ash, but for this author it ignited a vision of what a novel can achieve.

Lisa Gornick is the author of A Private Sorcery and Tinderbox, which Sarah Crichton Books will publish in September 2013. She has a BS from Princeton, and a PhD in clinical psychology from Yale, and is a graduate of the writing program at New York University and the psychoanalytic training program at Columbia, where she is currently on the faculty.

Next Story — Isabel Archer, Great-Grandmother
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Beatrice Townsend by John Singer sargent

Isabel Archer, Great-Grandmother 

on ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ by Michelle Huneven

The first time I read The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James I was fifteen years old. And Isabel Archer, so barely formed herself, became a major formative part of my literary life.

To a young, precocious teenager, Isabel’s arrival in England seemed like a beautiful, verdant dream. To step out onto the vast lawn and be greeted by an adorable terrier and three appreciative men—one an English Lord!—and to be deemed interesting . . . why, I could imagine nothing finer. Ah, to be interesting! Interesting!

I was disappointed and confused when Isabel turned down Lord Warburton, but it had all happened so quickly, I was sure she would come back to him, after she’d traveled around and had a chance to think. Who turns down a moat? Who spurns those kind sisters?

I disliked Madame Merle from the start. Unlike Isabel, I was not enchanted by her piano playing or her conversation. She was taking Isabel away from the plot I had in mind, the one full of romance and color. And even from my teenaged perspective, Madame Merle seemed like a mooch. I begrudged her Isabel’s interest and felt she drew Isabel away from the emotional core of the book, from Ralph, and Lord Warburton. I wanted something finer for Isabel—if she had turned down a ladyship and moat, she should have a more lively and adventurous companion for what was now looking like an overly-chaperoned Grand Tour.

The deeper I read in the book, the more I hated the cover of my paperback edition. So I replaced it with a cover of my own making, from a postcard of a Sargent portrait (strangely appropriate, I see in retrospect). This effort certainly presaged my deep identification with the cover designs of my own books.

In my first reading of the novel, I thought it charming and generous that Ralph talked his father into bankrolling Isabel, thus allowing her the freedom to gain her treasured “experience.” The bequest seemed more of the stuff of fairy tales: to be transported to magical woods, to have the local landed gentry smitten with you, then to be made rich?

The unease I felt when Isabel transferred her allegiance from the Touchettes to their freeloading houseguest broke some of the spell.
Isabel was taking some wrong turns. I was fearful, yet undeniably curious to see where she’d go.

I disliked Osmond instantly. He was no fun, and strange. He creeped me out: the way he treated his daughter, socking her away in a convent. Holding her between his knees.

Was Isabel so blind? Or did she see something I was missing?
And—this interested me the most—Isabel was willful.

Once rich, despite the remonstrances and advice of loving friends, she ran directly into Madame Merle and Osmond’s snare, and for years she didn’t know what hit her.

All along, Isabel was so certain of herself—but on what did she base this certainty? Newly orphaned, she had never been particularly well-parented or well-educated. Essentially, she had the self-knowledge of that English terrier in the opening scene. Her youth, innocence and American openness left her ill-equipped for musty, corrupt old Europe. How could she even guess what she was up against, especially given the recent headspinning shifts in her circumstances? Her alluring confidence and self-possession, her strong will, would soon enough prove gimcrack and naive, no match for what the Old World held store for her.

But I understood willfulness. I already sensed my own deep currents, whose pull was non-negotiable—and I would similarly be carried into dubious, even perilous company and inappropriate love.

In my own small high school world, I was like Isabel. I didn’t like the track star and straight-A boy who courted me, I liked the slouchy, smart-ass kid kicked out of Catholic school for God knows what good reason. I was strong in math and science but eschewed them for more expressive pursuits, namely literature. For the next two decades—and thus, in some ways, for life, I was often the victim of my own unexamined willfullness, my decisive, often wrongheaded choices.

The unexamined will of intelligent woman—so vivid and unstoppable in Isabel Archer and Dorothea Brooks, and Gwendolyn Harleth—was a fictional construct I would explore in my writing: How and why do certain otherwise intelligent young women know so absolutely what they want, and why does what they insist upon so often lead them into peril?

Isabel Archer is the great-grandmother of my own heroines, who mulishly go their own way, headlong into trouble. I am interested in the nature of that trouble, what it says of them and I am even more interested in the mechanism that eventually frees them.

For it is there, deep in the hell they have entered so confidently, so assuredly—alone in a big craftsman house or jail cell—that, like Isabel Archer, they start at last, to wake up, when the embattled ego, the “I,” finally slips free and sees for the first time that it has long been sold a bill of goods not by others, but by the primal needs of a ravening, unconscious self.

Michelle Huneven is the author of three novels — Round Rock, Jamesland, and Blame. A fourth novel, Off Course, is forthcoming in Spring 2014. She teaches fiction writing at UCLA and lives in Altadena, California with her husband, cat, African gray parrot and terrier.

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