Showing posts with label getting to know our favorite writers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label getting to know our favorite writers. Show all posts

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Rebecca Again

As spring comes on, I find myself revisiting my favorite novels.  It is the mark of a good, excellent, even masterful novel, if they call to us even after we've read them, to come back and explore a story all over again, discover new nooks and crannies and the secrets buried in them.  Spring began with Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte), I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith) and Rebecca (Daphne Du Maurier) - reviving a spirit of the classic, ageless stories that have inspired, compelled or comforted me in my work.

I just finished Rebecca for the second time.  It is the newest of the three to my experience.  Jane has been with me since high school.  And Cassandra (I Capture the Castle) just after I graduated college.  An article on NPR stirred up an interest in Rebecca, and here I am, reading her again.  A few weeks ago I'd made up my mind that Rebecca was one novel I should have in my collection - I needed it in that odd, frenzied writerly way.  I know I will come back to it in the future time and time again.  I wanted it with me ready to be taken down and studied, just as Jane Eyre and I Capture the Castle are.

Rebecca's opening line is famous and ghost-like "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." It is more deeply psychological, sitting in the heart of the young (and nameless) Mrs. de Winter's story and looking out on the traces left of her husband's first wife.  The narrator's experience colors so much of the novel - her suspense is our suspense.  When she is shaken, we are shaken.  I could write paragraphs upon paragraphs of how Rebecca draws on Jane, how they're similar, how each is its own unique work of art, but perhaps in another post.  For the moment, I am quite content to bask in the sunshine and the shadows of these two works... a house of secrets, a wife's hidden nature, a husband's torment, a second marriage threatened, a haunting sadness, a love of place and nature, hauntings of the living and the dead. 

I love Ms. Du Maurier's attention to detail - how those details paint character as well as scene.  In the beginning of the tale she introduces the narrator's employer Mrs. Van Hopper thus:

... how different my present companion, his steady, well-shaped hands peeling a mandarin in quiet, methodical fashion, looking up now and again from his task to smile at me, compared to Mrs. Van Hopper, her fat bejeweled fingers questing a plate heaped high with ravioli, her eyes darting suspiciously from her plate to mine for fear I should have made the better choice... (p 10)

Rebecca herself is dead, but she's alive in the imagination of Mrs. de Winter, eclipsing her, overpowering her from beyond the grave:

I must have been the first person to put on that mackintosh since the handkerchief was used.  She who had worn the coat then was tall, slim, broader than I about the shoulders, for I had found it big and over-long, and the sleeves had come below my wrists.  Some of the buttons were missing.  She had not bothered to do it up... There was a pink mark upon the handkerchief.  The mark of lipstick.  She had rubbed her lips with the handkerchief, and then rolled it in a ball, and left it in the pocket. I wiped by fingers with the handkerchief, and as I did so I noticed that a dull scent clung about it still.  (p 120)

Her description of Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper:

Someone advanced from the sea of faces, someone tall and gaunt, dressed in deep black, whose prominent cheek-bones and great, hollow eyes gave her a skull's face, parchment-white, set on a skeleton's frame. (p 67)  

I could go on and on and on, but then my thoughts on Rebecca would be as long, or even longer, than the book itself.  It is a masterpiece because every word, every detail is carefully placed for the best affect - the subtlest, most stirring metaphors. The very novel is alive - gorgeously reflective of Manderley itself: a grand old house, well-kept and beautiful but unable to contain the wild spirit stirring at its heart.

You should read Rebecca...

... if you love Jane Eyre.  Don't compare them seriously (as to which is the "better" because they're both very different) - just enjoy their similar shades of story
... to catch a glimpse of the restless Cornish sea
... for a compelling, page-turning mystery wrought with lingering grief and silent rage
... for mouthwatering descriptions of food and gardens you can almost smell... the azaleas! the roses!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Wisdom from Oscar Wilde

The Telegraph yesterday featured an article on a recently discovered letter that Oscar Wilde wrote to a would-be writer around 1890.  It felt like he was speaking to me from the dawn of the last century:

Oscar Wilde

"The best work in literature is always done by those who do not depend on it for their daily bread, and the highest form of literature, Poetry, brings no wealth to the singer... Make some sacrifice for your art and you will be repaid but ask of art to sacrifice itself for you and a bitter disappointment may come to you."

To me this sounds like: "so you're a novelist who earns her living as a receptionist? Excellent!  You're able to let your art remain art!  I know you dream of one day earning your living by your novels, but it might not be as rosy as you think.  Until then, use this time to grow as a writer and a student of language and see where it takes you.  You might go farther than you think."  Thank you, Mr. Wilde.


In a similar vein, author Matt Haig also had thirty pieces of encouraging wisdom to share via the Telegraph. My favorites were:

  • Being published doesn't make you happy.  It just swaps your old neuroses for new ones.
  • Success depends on great words and passionate people.  The words are up to you.  The people you have to pray for, and stand by them once you have them.
  • Beauty breeds beauty, truth triggers truth.  The cure for writer's block is therefore to read.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Why Joan Didion Writes

Here's a link for you.  Joan Didion on about why she writes, on the power of grammar and visceral detail. 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

On The Casual Vacancy (Jillian)

J. K. Rowling's new book was released today.  According to Allison Pearson, writing for the Telegraph, it is a far cry from the wizarding world - dark, often unpleasant and coarse about British suburbia.  There have been questions about her writing something that is definitely not for children.  She said, "I’m a writer and I will write what I want to write." Personally, she can do whatever she wants - she's had phenomenal success, such that the vast majority of writers will never experience.  If she wants to write a dark, misanthropic tale, that's fine with me and the people who will read it and enjoy it for what they get out of it.  It would be a far worse thing if The Casualty Vacancy was a self-commentary on Harry Potter, if it unravelled the magic that she wove with those stories.  But no. They are two different animals. There is no law that says the woman must write about Harry Potter for life or not at all.  Goodness, I'd hope not.  The more power to her.  I just hope her next endeavor is a little happier.

For the record, the more I think about the bleakness and unkindness of The Casual Vacancy, the more convinced I am that I'd rather read her work than something such as Fifty Shades.  I'd rather be slapped in the face with a brilliantly-written, chilling work that makes me think, rather than slog through a boring, plotless chassis of a book. 

[These opinions are solely those of Jillian.]

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Whimsical Wednesday: From Rowling to Rebecca

Here is the mid-week whimsy report:

  • The New York Daily News got hold of a copy of J. K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy in advance of its release.  They've gone ahead and called it dull, but judging from how the release of this book is a highly anticipated event, I'd imagine others will have their own opinions.
  • NPR has an article on a Broadway musical-that-could-be based on Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca.  A Broadway musical of Rebecca?  I'm in. 
  • The Telegraph has a lovely article compiling reflections of authors and their first jobs.  It makes me feel like my beginnings, humble as they are, are in good company and not to be regretted.  Among the stories: Hilary Mantel was a social worker in a geriatric hospital; Attica Locke worked in her father's law office; Joe Dunthorne was an incompetant barman. 
  • The Emmys were Sunday night.  I was disappointed, of course, that none of the gentlemen from Sherlock (Cumberbatch, Moffat and Freeman) won anything.  I suppose they have a few BAFTAs anyhow, though.  There was a lot of talent in the room, I must say.  And it was a big room.
  •  Jillian is now on Twitter.  She still hasn't quite figured out how to use it.  Details to come!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Charles Dickens: 200 Years Young (Jillian)

In case you live in a cave somewhere without internet, a newspaper or even a handy-dandy novelty calendar to remind you, today is Charles Dickens' birthday. My favorite websites are, of course, all over it... so I don't need to wax poetic quite to their degree. (Check out Google's banner for the occasion. Awesome!) Still, I could not let the day pass without adding my own little offerings on the occasion.

I was one of those who was exposed to Dickens early and never really knew why. First there was A Christmas Carol in middle school; then A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations and Nicholas Nickleby in high school. This in conjunction with later offerings of Moby Dick, Pride & Prejudice, Return of the Native, offerings from The Canterbury Tales and Wuthering Heights; it is hard to read Dickens if you're a teenager with her head in a galaxy far, far away or in Neverland or floating out in the cosmos somewhere in a Tardis.

Of course, if you're anything of a Whovian, you'll know that the Doctor met Charles Dickens and saved Cardiff from an invasion of ghostly aliens in 1869. But I digress...

Dickens is awesome - but you knew that, of course. It may have taken my little brain a while to realize it, but it is quite obvious. In recent years, I've become blissfully lost in all the plot paths, back alleyways, shadows and sudden turns of his work. It takes patience. The man uses a lot of words. He can ramble. He can paint a very intricate political allegory (case in point, the plethora of Barnacles in the useless Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit). It is not easy to begin him young. But he is a delight to dive into a little later.

Claire Tomalin puts it this way (as I read it in Linda Wertheimer's article on NPR today): "He did these great walks — he would walk every day for miles and miles, and sometimes I think he was sort of stoking up his imagination as he walked, and thinking of his characters. The way he built his novels was through the voices of his characters."

That, I think, is the fundamental reason his stories resonate so clearly with us today. It is a piece of advice from beyond the grave, as it were, from one Great Writer to this little writer: "think of your characters and their voices."

What I celebrate today is a Writer of Writers, whose stories move us. Films and plays of his works will forever challenge filmmakers, actors and writers for years to come. Today, the Prince of Wales, Dickens' descendants, and many, many others paid their respects, and placed white roses and snowdrops on his grave. Ralph Fiennes read a passage from Bleak House. In so many ways, it was clear how Mr. Dickens is alive in all of us.

What a wonderful thing it is to remember a writer, a wordsmith, a story-teller, to continue to laud his accomplishments and consider the mystery of his life. It demonstrates what we hold onto as human beings - how much we cherish the art of Story, and how that will carry us into a hopeful future.

Thank you, Mr. Dickens, for the ways in which you inspire all of us to write and imagine.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Getting to Know Charlotte (Jillian)

My latest literary endeavor is Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Bronte. Having finally finished a long, grueling spell struggling with Charlotte’s Villette, I find I probably should have read her biography first to gather a better sense of her final novel.It's a great idea to get to know our favorite authors better - not merely in a sense of "how did they do that?" but to appreciate them for the creative people they are in ordinary lives, human beings who struggled instead of idols who leap out of the clay fully formed and automatically brilliant.

For those of you who are interested in branching out into Charlotte’s lesser-known works, I would urge you caution. Villette is a beautiful and profound work, a wonderful reflection of Charlotte’s experiences in Belgium. But the narrator and central character, Lucy Snowe, is a bit of an icy, indefinable ghost; at times Lucy, though she knows her own mind and her own sorrows, seems more of a captive witness to events rather than a strong participant. Though no less vivid than Jane Eyre, it was impossible at times to tell where Villette was going, if anywhere, and it took me about four months to finally finish it… reading other books along the way for occasional relief.

It is not to say that Villette is “bad”. It isn’t; it is rightly lauded as a masterpiece. It was also a profound challenge. Yet, that challenge inspired me to learn more about this mysterious, tragic writer, and see if following her journey can help me better appreciate her. Here are some interesting facts I have learned so far:

1. Charlotte had two older sisters who died of typhus when Charlotte was a little girl: Maria and Elizabeth. The circumstances of their deaths at a school in Yorkshire inspired the events in Jane Eyre wherein Jane’s only friend Helen dies during an epidemic.

2. Charlotte was private and had a quiet spirit, but when she set her mind to something, she was determined to carry it out. To quote Elizabeth: She was not one to take over-much about any project, while it remained uncertain – to speak about her labour, in any direction, while its result was uncertain.

3. Her hero was the Duke of Wellington, general of the Napoleanic wars and an important conservative political figure of the day.

4. She was terribly “short-sighted”, or near-sighted, and got by with the use of spectacles.

5. Charlotte and her equally famous sister Emily (Wuthering Heights) studied French and German at a Belgian school in 1842-43. Her experiences there would be the setting for her final work Villette.

6. One of Charlotte’s earliest pseudonyms was Charles Thunder. Later she would write under the name of Currer Bell; her sister Anne (Agnes Grey) was Acton Bell, and Emily was Ellis Bell.


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