Friday, September 29, 2006

Reviewing the Reviewer - Lorrie Moore

Cleverly, in reviewing the new biography of Eudora Welty (New York Review, Sept 21 2006), Lorrie Moore insinuates herself into Welty’s grande dame category of writer. Her second paragraph makes the blithe skip from Welty to Anne Tyler, who while opening the door to reporters in the wake of the announcement of her Pulitzer Prize victory, told them she was working and sent them away. The southern part of her opened the door. The Midwestern part sent them away. ‘Personally,’ Lorrie Moore writes, ‘if I saw strangers approaching my door, I would probably phone 911. Despite two southern grandfathers and a childhood during which I was told I was “half-southern,” it is quite possible I do not have a southern bone in my body.’

So Moore’s autobiography elides with her review of Welty’s life story. Sweetly we watch her approach Welty’s house for a snapshot, unwilling to knock on the door as locals say she should. Locals say Welty is welcoming to all, but ‘I knew that no writer in her writer’s heart welcomes impromptu visits from writers she doesn’t know.’

In such a way Moore’s very opening paragraph announces that she has the inside scoop on being a writer. Later we hear how ‘Having as a young writer befriended two literary grande dames (Katherine Ann Porter and Bowen) she gamely stepped forward when her time came.’ So having entwined her own young life with Welty’s, she gamely acknowledges the responsibilities that are set to ensue.

Lorrie Moore had name recognition with me before this, but I had never read her. Now I shall make sure to, for the one clearest way in which I see her stepping into the lineage of welt & Co. is the very fine way in which she writes. Observations stand out as true. Sentences stand out as clean and lucid.

The biographer Suzanne Marrs claims that an early fictional character of Welty’s is “aka Eudora” … ‘as if a fictional character were an alias, or someone the author is doing business as,’ Moore remarks. ‘Oh, well: it is a hazard of literary biography that few have avoided. Still, the phrase “aka Eudora,” it seems to me, sets a new rhetorical standard for refusing even to try.’

Here’s a crisp one-liner. ‘Welty seemed to love any populated room that did not have Carson McCullers in it.’

Her literary observations are clear-eyed, affectionate and unsentimental. Welty ‘will be remembered for a handful of writings—which is really all any writer, even a great one, can hope for.’ [On this point, I myself wonder sometimes if writers might be awarded grants on condition they limit themselves to the production of five books.]

Lorrie Moore delivers a splendid punchline to her piece. ‘Literary biography is like detective fiction for those who don’t need suspense.’

So I look forward to a book of Moore’s stories. In the meantime she has prompted me to take Eudora Welty’s ‘Why I Live at the P.O.’ down off the shelf here in France—a success by any reviewer’s standard.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Biography - from birth to death

Pierre Berton ruled the roost when it came to Canadian nonfiction. He was clear about one distinction between academic and ‘creative’ biographies. The academics started at the birth of their subject, if not a long disquisition on their ancestry. ‘Creative’ biographers would jump straight into a highlight, and maybe not need to worry about covering the whole life at all.

I’m on the ‘creative’ side of that line, indeed might be deemed to be waving a flag for it. Yet here I am writing my biography of J.S.Haldane as a birth to death story. I tried to avoid it. I wrote a sample chapter with a dramatic sequence at a mining disaster that thrust J.S.Haldane into the midst of a quintessential scene. But the agent wanted to start with the birth so that was what we sold.

My editor changed, so I tried to swing a change on the new one. He was disappointed, as though I had lost confidence in my own story.

So my biography of J.S.Haldane does indeed start with the birth and follows a chronological line. I quite enjoyed the challenge. Clearly it takes a character some years before he or she has achieved the actions that will merit a biography. It’s a good creative challenge to make those years interesting.

Today was an assiduous workday, rounding off the 19 year-old Haldane’s time at the University of Jena. I have some correspondence, but what was the Jena like in 1879? Who were all these characters he met? How does it all sit into the sweep of history in which he was about to take part, but had not yet done so?

I found my answers. We’ll see how well they stand the test of time when I come to the next draft. For the moment I am moving the story relentlessly forward.

Today was one of the big two days of the week in this French village. The butcher’s van pays a visit, and while the women queue they swap stories of the last few days. I’m the honorary woman in the group, the only man I’ve ever known to line up there. Today, in my broken French, I had a go at explaining the Haldane bio to them. ‘You know how canaries, those little yellow singing birds, are used down mines? Well he’s the man who introduced them in that way.’ It worked.

They understood, and we all moved on to discussing the dense cloud of house martins that paid a visit to our bend in the river a couple of days ago, filling the skies and perching in a dense mass along the walls of the houses. Then, in one cloudbursting moment, they were gone, migrating south.

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Pen is a Mighty Sword - a playwriting award

Pleasant news in today – I’ve won a prize in the ‘Pen is a Mighty Sword’ international playwriting competition, run through the Virtual Theatre Project in the USA. I'll be flying out to a staging of my play Feeding the Roses in Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, next February.

I was fighting shy of entering competitions, till wandering down a corridor with a whole bunch of esteemed, prize-winning poets recently. Entry forms to a poetry competition were on a wall, and each poet took one away eagerly. It seems such competitions are part of the life blood of poets. My new novel Slippery When Wet sits with the pack of those books entered by publishers for the next Costa award – which is what the Whitbread has become.

Feeding the Roses, which had a few minutes of itself performed as part of Contact’s ‘Flip the Script’ event in Manchester. I do look forward to seeing how the whole play comes across when fed through an American experience.

In the meantime entries have started coming through for the short story competition I myself am judging – the City of Derby writing competition, 2007.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

How come I'm living in the French Pyrenees

“I have a little home in the south of France,” the lady who was my neighbour announced. “It’s too much to cope with now. Do you know anyone who would like to have it?”
“Me,” James said.
He had flown to England from America to help me vacate my apartment and sell all my belongings. In five days I was heading for India to research a book. Why fix yourself to one holiday home when there is a whole world to explore?
The next morning we took a ferry to France.
“I was wrong,” James confessed twenty-four hours later. We had reached the Mediterranean. “I can’t take on a house this far from home. It’s impossible.”
I turned right. The Pyrenean mountains silhouetted the blue sky ahead of us. My heart opened. I recognized home.
“You’re going to India,” James reminded me. “Coming to this house is a crazy idea. You can’t have it. Turn around.”
I drove on. It was February 1995. Orchards of cherry trees stretched back from the road, rich with pink blossom, mountains shining bright with snow above them.
We turned onto a mountain road.
“Is this right?” I asked.
We had climbed high, and our road now plunged toward a river valley. James did not answer. He had taken a vow of silence that would last till we were safely on the road away from here. We followed bends in the river to the village.
Its houses cluster around a hill like cells in a honeycomb. To be in one house is to be joined to all the others, their shapes curved and rising snug against each other with their shuttered windows and orange-tiled roofs. I found the house we were looking for, opened the door, and took my first steps inside French mountain village life.
“It’s beautiful,” I said, pushing back the shutters and looking out along the valley. You could look down and count the trout in the river below.
Behind me James reached a finger into the wall and pulled off several feet of plaster. The house’s rear wall was the bare rock of the hillside, which leaked like a spring onto the floor. The house wiring was strung along the copper pipes of the plumbing, which ran below the ceiling.
“It needs some work,” I admitted.
James was studying to become a Zen priest. He pulled out a wooden chair, sat on it, and closed his eyes. He would stay in meditation till I was ready to go. I brought in my boxes of remaining possessions and took them upstairs, away from the wet floor. They were my pledge that I would return.
I did go to India, but for the last time. This little home in France has contained my wanderlust. Every year, for months at a time, I return. The house was once the goathouse for the monastery of the founding monks, and so dates back to the middle ages. It has watched generations come and go. Perhaps that’s one reason I am a traveler who is learning to stay still. Living in this village is like travelling through time.
A bell tolls and a party of people dressed in black come out of the new village hall built across the river. They cross the bridge and mount the steps to the church that crowns the village. Twice my return has seen me witness such funerals. Old people retreat indoors then die. Every morning I meet a widow on her way back from the cemetery, visiting her husband who was once my neighbour.
History passes in lives like these, but as seasons too. Those February blossoms fall and cherries grow. I wait for the ripeness of wild figs, apricots, brambles, almonds and pomegranates too. Bats stream out along the river at dusk, nightingales return to sing from favorite branches, frogs croak mating calls, and in summer young folk from Paris return to their ancestral homes. A show band brings crowds to dance in the village square at the end of August, then the rock pool and its imported beach empty of holidaymakers, grapes ripen for the October harvest, and in November vines stripe the landscape in red and gold.
I come downstairs to find a dog sitting on the window ledge. We take our regular walk through hillsides worked with terraces as ancient as any in the Andes. That’s what wanderlust means to me now. Walking my hills with my friend the dog.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Cotes du Roussillon Villages Lesquerde - picking and sampling season de nouveau

Pour the local French wine into an expensive bottle and my guests were eager to praise it, but it was hard to be out and proud about the regional wine. The cave in my own Pyrenean village sold its produce as industrial alcohol before closing down years ago, and vines were ripped up and replaced with apricot trees.
Then Robert Parker came along. The American wine critic is not yet writing a book on Langeudoc-Roussillon to rival his classic volume on Bordeaux. In fact in this region, that stretches along the French Mediterranean coast from Nimes to the Spanish border, he had acclaimed one wine before the 2001 harvest. Magnificently it came from close to me, the label George Pous from the village of Lesquerde. I bought two bottles at thirty eight francs each to lay down in my cellar for five years or so (how redolent that old currency feels as I write), then headed for the fields. It’s always fun to pick from the vines while anticipating the taste.
Lesquerde is essentially a coastal landscape, its land composed of granite and sand, but the glacial activity that prompted the Pyrenees to rise dragged this area up with it. The high mountains form a backdrop, while the vineyards of Lesquerde lie at 470 meters.
Christian Gervais was new to the winegrowing business. An ex-rugby player (in Languedoc-Roussillon the game is an obsession,) he has a build that would fit the Tongan national team – shiny head, gleaming bronzed skin, ready smile, and natural weightlifting bulk. His physique could do nothing to protect his vines against the weather. For the last two years hailstorms had cut swathes across his fields. One moment all was fine, ten minutes later the crops were destroyed.
Through 2001 Christian watched the skies the way others watched the stock market. He had taken such heavy losses that one more would bankrupt him. I hoped he had something worth picking.
The year’s harvest was three weeks early so any extra help was welcome. A head rose from behind a row of vines as I approached. Clothed in beige dungarees and a white teeshirt, Christian was beaming.
“How’s it going?” I asked.
“It’s good!” he declared.
I took a bucket, a pair of small secateurs, and joined in.
In that particular field it was hard to feel enthusiastic for Christian’s future. The plantings were fairly new. Whatever the method, whether vines are tied in rows as here or spaced to grow free, in ‘goblet’ fashion forming the shape of a wine beaker, the same number of vines are planted, 4,500 per hectare. The trick with new plantings is to trim them of grapes for the first few years, so strength grows into their roots. Instead the previous owner had encouraged the plants to spurt high. Most bunches were meager, while low ones were sucked dry by wild boar. I pointed out a bunch that looked like raisins and asked if they were worth picking.
“The land is so poor,” Christian replied, still smiling. “We take whatever nature gives us.”
A good yield is forty hectalitres of wine per hectare. The rough land and warm climate make thirty to thirty-five more attainable in Lesquerde. Tests on that year’s Syrah grape showed a high 13.4 (degrees) of alcohol, and a low acid count of 4, so while the yield would not be high the quality would be good.
Chris, a solid ex-army Englishman, stood with a plastic basket strapped to his back. As the porter, he ferried 70kg a time back to the trailer. Two young local men were the hired hands, earning the minimum wage of 320 francs a day. Each man would pick a daily average of 1100 kilos.
Five villages of the area are allowed to designate their wines Côtes de Roussillon Villages, and to do so their wines must contain at least three grape varieties. Standard to the area is Carignan, with some vines more than a hundred years old. Next in popularity are the Syrah and Grenache Noir grapes, the others being Lladoner Pelut, Cinsault and Mauvèdre. Having stripped one field we shifted our focus to another, the oldest Syrah vines on Christian’s land. They were thirty-six years old, and generous. I reached my cutters through deep foliage and pulled out bundles of sweet, mellow black grapes. My fears for Christian’s future eased. Such fruit had to make great wine.
Grey clouds swamped the sky and rain swept in. The first task on delivery at the cave would be for a man to measure the alcohol level. Too much rainwater in the load and this level would plummet. Such grapes are consigned to a lesser grade and so paid for at a lower rate. The picking stopped, Christian covered the bed of his truck with tarpaulin to keep them dry, and I followed his tractor back to the cave.
The Lesquerde cooperative was started in 1923, as part of an independence movement throughout the region. Until then companies would come in and negotiate separate deals and prices with individual owners. The cooperative movement traditionally produced a mass of mediocre wines, leaving the higher quality market to the chateaux. This has changed. In France, farmers under forty are officially termed ‘young farmers’. Out of twelve members of the cave’s council, eight are young farmers of whom three are women. New ideas and fresh enthusiasm is revitalizing this local industry. Wine snobbism might still look down on the cooperative efforts, but the co-ops have raised their standards to produce dry, dark red wines of real distinction.
The September sun shone once more and Christian grinned. The alcohol level on his load was measured on weigh-in, and came out high.
He tipped the load onto a broad conveyor belt, where the grapes settled en route to becoming wine. They shifted around each other as though belching life. “Wine is never dead,” Christian assured me. “For proof, look at the containers in the cave. In winter, the level drops. In summer, it rises. It is like the tide.”
Christian’s tractor rattled back down the lane to his fields. Buying an extra two bottles of the George Pous for home, I vowed to sign up for a case of the 2001. And as I write this, I’m drinking my first glass. It’s been selected for the local Bacchus 2006 journal as one of the best of the year for the whole region, and is robust and wonderful.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Pezilla de Conflent

After selling up in the UK and a grand time on the road, a homecoming.
This little Pyrenean village has been a home for twelve years now. For my years in the US, when immigration rules meant a lot of coming and going, I often spent half a year here.
This new run is for two months, completing a whole array of big writing tasks and getting fully engaged in my Haldane biography. But for the daly baker's van there's little to deflect one from writing. Save Ugo the dog, who for all our time here has come to take us out on walks. He must be 16 now but still has fire in his belly. The walk the other day saw him leave the road to chase off through the valley. Five minutes later the death squeals and cries of a wild boar ripped through the quiet. It lasted for ten minutes. The dog later came when called, the fur around his mouth soaked with blood. Mountain life has a hard edge to it.
Broadband has not caught up with the place yet - hence the lack of a picture here and meagre postings all round. At least it keeps me applied to the day job, ticking off the volume of writing tasks.
We had a cat as well as a dog adopt us for the first few years. The cat, forever pregnant, sat on the window ledge. The dog, liking the idea, took the cat's place. The cat, we suspect, went the way of that wild boar. Ugo doesn't get everything his way. He's lost an ear, and has a new wound in his thigh. He's getting his way now though. He's calling me out for a walk. The sun's dropping. Time to go.