Book review: ‘Truth and Dare’ by Martina Devlin

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Martina Devlin describes the eleven Irish women featured in her collection Truth and Dare as her ‘heroes’. Her admiration is evident; it is impossible to read this book and not discover something interesting. Devlin’s impressive research is fuelled by her conviction that these women were overlooked – sometimes even blatantly abused – in their own lifetimes. The collection is an attempt to redress the balance and give these women the recognition they deserve. It’s compelling and timely, particularly after the 2018 Irish Abortion Referendum, and is full of powerful moments. In Nana’s Ark’, Nana’s father smuggles her onto a merchant ship inside a chest stuffed with wool so that she can attend a convent school in France. In ‘Tucked Away’, two sisters burn to death at a society dance when the crinoline of their dresses catches a spark from the fireplace. Devlin shows us the underbelly of history, tells it from perspectives normally suppressed or dismissed, and it makes for refreshing reading.

It’s an ambitious goal, rejuvenating the legacies of eleven different historical figures within two hundred and sixty pages, and perhaps at times Devlin stretches herself thinly. In her determination to do the lives of the women justice, she prefaces each story with a detailed non-fiction biography and wraps it up with an italicised summation of their subject’s impact on Irish society. In the introduction to the collection, Devlin admits that she was unsure whether to write the book as fiction or non-fiction. ‘I decided on fiction because of the uncanny hold stories have over us,’ she writes. ‘Fiction is laced with enchantment. It hums with energy. It has the power to transport readers – to let us inhabit someone else’s life. Stories connect us with one another on a more intimate level than history or biography allows, creating space for magic to happen – the imaginative leap.’ In fact, Devlin’s storytelling is compelling enough to render the biographies unnecessary. The stories are short and dense, filled with context and historical knowledge, but the best moments are those that are emotional and human. Mary Ann McCracken is the only member of her family to walk with her condemned brother to the scaffold. Incarcerated Hanna Sheehy Skeffington is visited mid-hunger-strike by the ghost of her dead husband. It is only his company that keeps her from imagining delicious meals and distracts her from the cup of congealed tea in the corner. In these moments, the transformative effect Devlin sets out to create begins to emerge.

While fiction ‘brings history to life’, it does also have limitations. Readers are unlikely to be able to inhale facts from a story the same way they would from a reference book, though from a fictional account of someone’s life they are likely to get much else: atmosphere, context etc. Devlin is aware of these limitations, stating in her introduction that ‘none of these stories represent the total sum of the woman concerned. After all, each of them led fascinating and productive lives, whereas a short story can do no more than filter light towards some element or other which caught my attention.’ The stories are most successful when Devlin realises this point and reduces her own scope, choosing one or two moments within a person’s life and using them to paint a human, rather than a heroine.

In ‘Somebody’, featuring activist Anna Parnell (1852–1911) and ‘No Other Place’, about writer Alice Milligan (1866-1953), Devlin appears to do just this. In each, she describes a long scene – a visit to the pawnbroker’s, a conversation with a policeman over a cup of tea – and uses objects to trigger memories, a line of dialogue to open up the character and invite the reader into their past. This method is more satisfying for a historical short story and is well-executed by Devlin. Sometimes, the stories are so detailed they become stationary tableaus – revealing and beautifully described – but slightly overwhelmed by biography. The technique would be hard to sustain as a writer and difficult to absorb as a reader in anything longer than a short story but are probably a result of its form and the need to be concise. Devlin can’t draw it out because she doesn’t have time but, by unlocking information with imagery, manages to convey an extraordinary amount of research in very few pages.

The concision is admirable but it is possible that, in Truth and Dare, Devlin has the making of eleven novels rather than a collection of short stories. The content is arresting and disturbing – the description of Hanna Sheehy Skeffington dreading her impending force-feeding is particularly brutal – and could easily withstand a more thorough examination. Devlin is an expert researcher and prolific writer, having already written nine novels and several short story collections. Truth and Dare is a tantalising hint as to what could be possible, almost a catalogue of stories waiting to be novels or biopic movies starring Meryl Streep. At this time, with these characters, I’m sure a lot of people would buy tickets.

About the reviewer

Ellen Lavelle is a postgraduate student on The University of Warwick Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s currently working on a crime novel, a historical fiction novel and the script for a period drama. She interviews authors for her blog and you can follow her @ellenrlavelle on Twitter.

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Book review: ‘Smile of the Wolf’ by Tim Leach

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Is it ironic that one of the hottest books during the warmest British summer for 40 years seems to have been written to chill you to the bone? Set in the frozen snowscapes of 10th century Iceland, Tim Leach’s Smile of the Wolf does just that – but it’s not just the harsh winters and blizzards the characters in this excellent novel must contend with that will send shivers up your spine.

This is Leach’s third novel – yet the confidence and assuredness with which he writes could deceive you into thinking this is the work of a writer much longer in the tooth. The prose is elegant and beautiful, breath-taking and evocative (matching the sweeping landscapes of the book’s setting).

Yet for all the clear literary skill on show here, what is perhaps most impressive about this book is how current it feels – despite its historical setting. Although there are centuries separating the events in the novel and today, the core themes and actions that take place in the book strike right at the heart of something timeless – calling to something within human nature that is as old as literature and shows little sign of changing. Perhaps distilled most simply into the feud that erupts following the inciting incident of the novel, the moving parts of character loyalties, betrayal, fear, and dividing battle lines drawn between opposing sides, this is a plot that could have taken place at any time or place in history – and certainly wouldn’t seem out of place in, say, the current Conservative cabinet of Brexit Britain (though such a theoretical book may feel a tad colder than frozen Iceland).

Indeed, a charge often levied against works of historical fiction is that, as Hilary Mantel once explained, “authors [of historical fiction] are ducking the tough issues in favour of writing about frocks.” Well, first of all, there are few frocks to be found in Smile of the Wolf (this is far more cloak and dagger) – and secondly, this is not a book that avoids tackling real issues – or paints characters in any false light. Impressively, there are no characters who are without flaws or without redeeming qualities. Those who have earned the name of ‘coward’ show immense generosity and care for others. Those we see as brave and steadfast are also stubborn and paranoid. Leaders fear to step in; making only limited suggestions or offers of help and advice; while even those who are manipulative and cruel show love and ingenuity. In this way, the book presents us with painfully honest and accurate descriptions of human beings in a way precious few novels ever hope to.

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Iceland’s sweeping snowscapes are brought to life in Leach’s Smile of the Wolf

To dwell on the richness of these characters for a moment, none perhaps embody the heart of both the novel and its setting more than the protagonist, Kjaran. An Icelandic skald – or poet – his profession exists to provide the novel with a literary lilt that allows Leach to lift the prose up; yet we must also consider what effect it has on the veracity of the narrative. This is a first person account, after all – and as we all know, writers and artists often have an extremely malleable relationship with, and interpretation of, ‘the truth’. In an interview with Nothing in the Rulebook, Leach himself noted that “writers tell stories to survive” – and we see this in the way Kjaran ‘the landless’ must use his craft in order to ensure he has a warm place to stay during each harsh Icelandic winter. In this way, both Kjaran and Leach can be said to be using their survival instincts, as writers, to create and exist within realities that they create for themselves.

Now, we’ll avoid getting to ‘meta’, here – but suffice to say, this epic tome has more to offer than exciting action, the scents and sounds of battle and killing, the whisper of fear and murder and the howling of storms (though it has all those things, too). This is a book that invites us to see parallels with our own world and our own realities – and encourages to question our allegiances, our loyalties, and – perhaps most importantly – our assumptions.

Smile of the Wolf is published by Head of Zeus.

Purchase a copy of the book on Amazon here https://www.amazon.co.uk/Smile-Wolf-Tim-Leach/dp/1788544102

 

 

The Poetry of The Communist Manifesto: a combination of past and present

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What would have happened if Karl Marx had become a poet? In this article, Peter Raynard takes The Communist Manifesto to new, poetic levels. 

The Foundation

“Capitalism has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities. Capitalism has agglomerated population, centralised means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands.”

As many readers will know, Karl Marx wrote these words, but used the term ‘bourgeoisie’ instead of capitalism. The words were swapped in a 2012 lecture by John Lanchester (he of Whoops, and Capital) marking Marx’s 193rd birthday, to show how prescient he was in describing the structure of capitalism and the way in which it changes the landscape.

But as well as Marx’s prescience, he has also been lauded for his literary style of writing. In Robert Paul Wolff’s book, ‘Moneybags Must Be So Lucky: on the literary structure of Capital’, he references Edmund Wilson who likens Marx to the great ironist, Swift.

“Compare the logic of Swift’s ‘modest proposal’ for curing the misery of Ireland by inducing the starving people to eat their surplus babies with the argument in defence of crime which Marx urges on the bourgeois philosophers…: crime he suggests, is produced by the criminal just as ‘the philosophers produce ideas, the poet verses, the professor manuals,’ and practising it is useful to society because it takes care of the superfluous population at the same time that putting it down gives employment to many worthy citizens.”

Where Marx may have used satire in Capital, The Communist Manifesto is more of a Promethean tragedy; or as has been argued, Marx is more of a dialectical Promethean;

“the idea or practical conviction that what is made can be unmade, what is bound can be unbound by purposeful action. It is the sober acceptance that stealing fire from the gods will have serious consequences that will ultimately lead either to the emancipation, or the annihilation, of humanity.”

The Combination

Karl Marx had two great loves in his late teens, which he put into practice by joining two social clubs when at the University in Bonn; the first was the Tavern Club, which his father disapproved of because of the prevalence of drunken duels (it’s said that Marx did in fact engage in a duel); the second, was the Poets’ Club, of which his father did approve. Writing to his father however, his love of poetry was superseded by the events around him, ‘I had to study law and above all felt the urge to wrestle with philosophy.’ I wonder what impact he would have had, if he became a poet.

But as we all know, he didn’t and some twelve years later, he wrote The Communist Manifesto. However, the mix of prescience, satire, and tragedy in theses writings seemed to me to be the perfect ingredients for a poetic response.

In January this year, I was introduced to the poetic form of coupling by Karen McCarthy Woolf. The form is a poetic response to a piece of text, where the poet divides up lines of prose and responds with lines that include rhyme, repetition and assonance. I took a paragraph of the Communist Manifesto. I decided to explore the form further; writing the Preface, then Part One, and so on, until three months later I had matched 12,000 words of Marx’s masterpiece with roughly the same amount of my poetic own.

Drawing on a wide range of references, I have tried to situate the Manifesto in a variety of contemporary cultural places, in particular to emphasise the dialectic nature of the text, in the form I am presenting. This is complemented by a series of images, again matching the bound with the unbound. As far as I am aware, this is only the second poetic response (after Brecht) to the Communist Manifesto.

Below is a sample of the book, where Marx is describing the rise of the bourgeoisie:

Extract from The Combination

(rise of the bourgeoisie)

The feudal system of industry, in which industrial production
a set of pipes excavated from the intestines of serfs

was monopolised by closed guilds, now no longer sufficed
because the human body parts were too emaciated

for the growing wants of the new markets
who were still yet to discover the delights of the flesh

The manufacturing system took its place.
robots of various stomach sizes, blustered and bulged their way ahead

The guild-masters were pushed on one side by the manufacturing middle class
something the middle class did very passively aggressive like

division of labour between the different corporate guilds
confraternity contracts between belligerents, some say

vanished in the face of division of labour in each single workshop
atomising systems turning the metal of men into powder

Meantime the markets kept ever growing, the demand ever rising.
man-sized tissues no longer required, as it was nothing to be sneezed at

Even manufacture no longer sufficed
hands took to the machine not the article of craft

Thereupon, steam and machinery revolutionised industrial production
playthings of the mind, exponential change in fortunes, spin the wheel

The place of manufacture was taken by the giant, Modern Industry
all hail the shibboleths of mammon and their bloody tongues

the place of the industrial middle class by industrial millionaires
poor souls in the middle playing catch and missing

the leaders of the whole industrial armies, the modern bourgeois
come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough

Modern industry has established the world market
connecting cracked palms that never shake hands

for which the discovery of America paved the way
with their independent isolationist do-what-I-say

This market has given an immense development to commerce
so fly high my sweet nightingales of the east, you bulbul song birds

to navigation, to communication by land
enabling the troops of civilisation and Sodom to rape for progress

This development has, in its turn, reacted on the extension of industry;
a cleaning up if you will of virulent middle-aged faces

and in proportion as industry, commerce, navigation, railways extended
like a pop-up book with a mind of its own

in the same proportion the bourgeoisie developed
maturing like cancerous cheese on a wood-rot board

increased its capital, and pushed into the background
its nodules of self-aggrandisement, displacing

every class handed down from the Middle Ages
and so say some of us, and so say some of us, for

We see, therefore, how the modern bourgeoisie
the one percent to you and me

is itself the product of a long course of development
yes, yes, yes, we know what you meant

of a series of revolutions in the modes of production and of exchange
round and round we go, where will we stop – hold on, I know!

Each step in the development of the bourgeoisie was accompanied
by the ‘gertcha’ of Chas and Dave eulogising the end of days and

by a corresponding political advance of that class
who still dance on this parliamentary isle to Milton’s ‘light fantastick’

An oppressed class under the sway of the feudal nobility
as it was, as it is, as it was always meant to be

an armed and self-governing association in the medieval commune
oh for those lazy, crazy anarchistic days, sat around a smoky haze

here independent urban republic (as in Italy and Germany)
where townsmen gave purchase to their rights with moneyed fists

there taxable “third estate” of the monarchy (as in France)
the 98% of us scrapping over a share of bronze medal

afterwards, in the period of manufacturing proper
the threads of stratification began to untwine

serving either the semi-feudal or the absolute monarchy
the Naxalites of India can tell you a thing or two here

as a counterpoise against the nobility,
it always comes down to standing, back straight!

and, in fact, cornerstone of the great monarchies in general
whose spines were now curving to the submittal

the bourgeoisie has at last, since the establishment of Modern Industry
with all its rising fallacies and clocking on palaces

and of the world market, conquered for itself, in the modern representative State
the porous borders of innovative disorder

exclusive political sway.
you turn if you want to, but the old lady of England, is not for turning

The executive of the modern state is but a committee
with their bingo numbers to hand & Saturday night covers band

for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie
so not the main party to make us all free

About the author of this post

Peter Raynard Photo (6)

Peter Raynard is the editor of Proletarian Poetry: Poems of Working-class Lives (www.proletarianpoetry.com). He has written two books of poetry, his debut collection Precarious (Smokestack Books, 2018) and The Combination, a poetic coupling of the Communist Manifesto (Culture Matters, 2018), available here.

 

References:

Barker, Jason (2016) EPIC OR TRAGEDY? KARL MARX AND POETIC FORM IN THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, (sourced here)

Lanchester, John (2012) Marx at 193 (LRB podcast)

Nicolaievsky, Boris & Maenchen-Helfen, Otto (1933) Karl Marx: man and fighter (Pelican Books)

Wolff, Robert Paul (1988) ‘Moneybags Must Be So Lucky: on the literary structure of Capital’ (University of Massachusetts Press)

Why is the English language so weird?

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English spelling is undeniably chaotic. There’s an exception to almost every rule, 26 letters have to do the job of around 44 phonemes, and ‘English’ is less its own language than a strange combination and mixtures of myriad other languages both ancient and modern. The linguistic fingerprints of thousands of people can be found everywhere in our orthography. So no wonder people often think of it as being, well, weird (or should that be wyrd?)

Why is this? Well, the wonderful folk over at Mental_floss have compiled a handy little video to explain just this. In words and pictures, they give us a brief history of our weird spelling system and the people who made it.

The story starts with the missionaries who first wrote English – their impression of the Germanic language of the native Anglo Saxons – down as best they could using the Roman alphabet they knew. They made a reasonable job of it – once they’d found extra letters to cope with the pesky Germanic sounds they didn’t have in Latin (such as th or gh).

But the pronunciation changed. This is partly down to the arrival of the French (1066 anyone?), but it’s also because of the various different regional accents spoken across Britain – and because of the choice of letters used by printers using newly invented printing presses.

As the centuries rolled by, the language evolved as reformers began to alter existing spellings, basing their decisions on the Latin and Ancient Greek variations. A couple of centuries later, and words imported from foreign countries were kept more or less as they were. Although, in some cases, as with the word colonel, words were created from two foreign (in the case of Colonel, French and Italian) spellings and pronunciations.

Attempts to standardize and control language have often been aimed at simplifying English – but have had numerous unforeseen implications. Often, language becomes more complicated – not because of new rules; but because of new people and new ideas. What this means for the future of English is that it will continue to evolve and mutate. New words will be added and the meanings of existing words will change.

The reflection of this will be seen in our dictionaries, which reflect popular choices of spellings and words. Think “LOL”, “Selfie” and, last year, the “smiley face” “Emoji”.

In short: the history of English has not yet been written. The one constant of the language that will exist long into the future just as it has been with it through its past, is that it will remain, undeniably, weird.

The ideal sanctuary for books

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In explaining how the act of reading can be likened to a drug-taking experience, the masterful essayist, stylist and author, E. B. White, noted how this “sort of ecstasy” could only be derived from literature “under ideal conditions”.

What exactly are these conditions? Are they similar to those unique requirements writers need to help them through the process of writing? Or are they universal – accessible to anyone and everyone of us?

Perhaps a clue lies in the conditions present in those most important centres of creativity and learning: the public library. These monuments to human thought and communication, which have that fascinating ability to function both as institution and metaphor. Of course, no library is alike, yet we ascribe them all a set of conforming features: studiousness, solitude and quiet, above all else.

From the earliest scholastic archives of writing at Ugarit of Ancient Egypt, libraries have been models for the world and models of the world; they’ve offered stimulation and contemplation, opportunities for togetherness as well as a kind of civic solitude. They’ve acted as gathering points for lively minds and as sites of seclusion and solace. Most importantly of all, they have provided countless doses of White’s “ecstasy” to readers and writers, because of the conditions inherently present within the walls of every library, and the corridors of books within them.

In praise of libraries

These qualities of libraries are at the heart of the belief that all humans have a certain responsibility for maintaining and taking care of these cultural hubs. Indeed, Neil Gaiman asserted that “we have an obligation to support libraries. If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.”

Part of the reason for this is clear. In our digital, Post-Fordist world, it is becoming harder and harder to free ourselves from distraction. To find solace and places of quiet. To think hard about something for thirty minutes instead of thirty seconds.

Of course, the fundamental need to slow down – to find the time and space to think – is nothing new. For centuries, wiser souls have reminded us that we will never be happy unless we live quiet lives.  “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries,” the French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in the 17th century, “and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.” He also famously remarked that all of man’s problems come from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

British philosopher, Bertrand Russel, meanwhile, opined that “a happy life must be to a great extent a quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy can live.”

It is the opportunity libraries offer us to sit quietly by ourselves that makes them such fitting sanctuaries for books. As we lift a book from a shelf carrying the words of so many others, these buildings remind us, in their calm, quiet serenity, of the conditions in which the words are best read. For it is within these conditions that some of the greatest rewards from reading are reaped: these being a deeper consciousness of oneself, increased creativity, increased freedom; increased joy.

Flepham’s Green and Pleasant Home: The Blake Society successfully buys William Blake’s house for the nation

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After an ambitious crowd-funding campaign, the Blake Society has successfully purchased Blake’s cottage – a quaint, Grade II listed home in Flepham, Sussex. The cottage is where the Great British poet wrote ‘Jerusalem’, and Flepham is where he was arrested for sedition.

The house has been preserved in much the same state as it was when Blake lived there – it even still has the vegetable patch seen in many of the poet’s famous sketches.

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The Blake Society has run an efficient and effective campaign to raise the funds to buy the property. In a statement, the group confirmed that the building would now be “held in trust for the nation in perpetuity.”

Tim Heath, Chair of the Blake Society, said that the idea of placing the home into a trust for all those inspired by Blake was first mentioned 22 years ago, on “a summer’s day in 1993” over tea.

Heath added that he knew “the process of raising over half a million pounds from the Blake community – many of whom eschew money – would never be easy […] but with the individual gifts of many hundreds of donors and the extraordinary generosity of one anonymous trust, the Cottage has been purchased.”

After thanking the Blake community for their excellent fundraising skills, Heath commented upon the Cottage, noting it’s importance:

“The cottage is where Blake wrote the poem ‘And Did Those Feet …’ while he was awaiting his trial for Treason,” Heath explained. “And so there is a special irony in how this radical poem Jerusalem has become a national anthem, a hymn to dissent and a song that challenges both the Singer and the State.

Professor Wu says:

“This is a great day for lovers of history, literature, poetry and culture. Blake lived in nine houses all his life, all rented. The building is the last of two remaining – with the others all now demolished. This illustrates just how important it is that the Blake Society have been successful in securing this cottage for future generations. I would tip my cap to them, if I weren’t a giant Chinese salamander floating in a tank here in London Zoo.”