Saturday, 31 March 2012

'Deputy Sid's Gift' - Or Anthony Trollope and Tim Gautreaux

In his Autobiography, Anthony Trollope wrote that, "if the extension of novel-reading be so wide as I have described it - then very much good or harm must be done by novels. The amusement of the time can hardly be the only result of any book that is read, and certainly not so with a novel, which appeals especially to the imagination, and solicits the sympathy of the young. A vast proportion of the teaching of the day, - greater than many of us have acknowledged to ourselves, - comes from these books, which are in the hands of all readers."

He goes on to write that, "The writer of stories must please, or he will be nothing. And he must teach whether he wish to teach or no." He also comments that, "Thinking of all this, as a novelist surely must do, - as I certainly have done through my whole career, - it becomes to him a matter of deep conscience how he shall handle those characters by whose words and doings he hopes to interest his readers."

One author who, like Trollope, sees fiction in moral terms is Tim Gautreaux. His wonderful short story, 'Deputy Sid's Gift' (from Waiting for the Evening News), is as authentically Catholic a piece of fiction as I've read in a long time.

Gautreaux, as I've mentioned before, is the master of the intervention story. When trouble arrives, his characters get up and help. Existential angst is not Gautreaux's thing. In 'Deputy Sid's Gift', for example, the first person narrator finds himself drawn into the orbit of a local alcoholic, an alcoholic who has no interest in kicking his drinking habit. However, as the narrator gradually learns, this does not let him (the narrator) off the hook. As Deputy Sid explains in the story's last line, "we couldn't do nothing for him but we did it anyway."

Other links between Gautreaux and Trollope sprang to mind as I read the latter's Autobiography. He wrote, for example, that: “The ordinary talk of ordinary people is carried on in short, sharp, expressive sentences, which very frequently are never completed, - the language of which even among educated people is often incorrect. The novel-writer in constructing his dialogue must so steer between absolute accuracy of language – which would give to his conversation an air of pedantry, and the slovenly inaccuracy of ordinary talkers, which if closely followed would offend by an appearance of grimace – as to produce upon the ear of his readers a sense of reality.”

That describes Gautreaux's work perfectly. His dialogue is always spot on.

But I shouldn't exaggerate the similarities. This wonderful passage, for instance, could not be applied to any of Gautreaux's work: "Short novels are not popular with readers generally. Critics often complain of the ordinary length of novels, - of the three volumes to which they are subjected; but few novels which have attained great success in England have been told in fewer pages. The novel-writer who sticks to novel-writing as his profession will certainly find that this burden of length is incumbent on him."

Thursday, 29 March 2012

St John of the Cross

I've blogged before about St John of the Cross so I was interested to read this post on the great Doctor of the Church (and Roy Campbell) on Fr Tim Finigan's blog.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Pragmatic Stylistics

I have been reading a fascinating book called Pragmatic Stylistics by Elizabeth Black. It's a wonderful book, though not one for school students unless they can cope with sentences like “Such narrators may be given to generalisations (gnomic utterances) and be judgemental (using deontic and boulomaic modality).”

But I mustn't quote selectively. The book is clearly written and, importantly, contains lots of examples from actual novels. In fact, it is the use of these real literary examples which sets the book apart from the field.

The chapters on such topics as Narrative Voices, Direct and Indirect Discourse, Tropes and Parody, Symbolism and Psychonarration are all grounded in relevant literary examples and, strikingly, many of the books Elizabeth Black uses were written by Catholic authors. She quotes extensively from the works of Muriel Spark, Alice Thomas Ellis, Ernest Hemingway, and David Lodge, for example.

Her linguistic approach to these literary texts is great for anyone teaching A Level English Language and Literature but it's also extremely useful for anyone teaching Literature as well.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Creative Reworkings: 'The Canterbury Tales' again

I mentioned David Lodge's reworking of 'The Canterbury Tales' in my last post. Another reworking (which I prefer) is Tim Gautreaux's 'Died and Gone to Vegas' which you can read here or in Waiting for the Evening News, or in Same Place, Same Things, or in The Best American Catholic Short Stories.

The story features a group of workers on the significantly named Leo B. Canterbury, a steam dredge which is going nowhere because of the "high winter winds", who tell each other increasingly tall tales over a game of cards.

However, as the game progresses we discover that not only the Leo B. Canterbury but their pilgrimage is on hold. What all the characters want, as Gautreaux himself explains in an interview with the Mississippi Review, is "to go on some sort of pilgrimage [to] the secular shrine of Las Vegas. Or as the dredge's pilot puts it: "Hell, we all want to go to Las Vegas. Don't you want to take one of us along to the holy land?"

Their stories (or "lies") are wonderful and wonderfully told but it is the ending which brings us back, cleverly and subtly, to 'The Canterbury Tales'.

The story finishes with Nick, the story's one college boy, imagining one more story, a story of disappointment at the gambling tables and another journey, this time away from Vegas: "He saw her at last walking across the desert through the waves of heat, mountains in front and the angry snarl of cross-country traffic in the rear, until she sobered up and began to hitch, picked up by a carload of Jehovah's Witnesses driving to a convention in Baton Rouge in an un-air-conditioned compact stuck in second gear. Every thirty miles the car would overheat and they would all get out, stand among the cactus and pray. Raynelle would curse them, and they would pray harder for the big, sunburned woman sweating in the metallic dress. The desert would spread before her as far as the end of the world, a hot and rocky place empty of mirages and dreams. She might not live to get out of it."

Though untrue (because it is only one possible future), it is the only story within the story that isn't a "lie". And the journey away from "the secular shrine of Las Vegas" is the only true journey in the story too, a journey to a place empty of mirages where other greater journeys at least become possible.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Creative Reworkings: 'The Canterbury Tales'

I'm currently working on a scheme of work for the 'Journeys and Pilgrimages' creative writing option for A Level English Language and Literature and am quite enjoying the challenge. I have been looking, for example, at how recent writers have reinterpreted earlier texts (as I mentioned in an earlier post).

For example, David Lodge turns his attention to the opening of 'The Canterbury Tales' in Small World:

"When April with its sweet showers has pierced the drought of March to the root, and bathed every vein of earth with that liquid by whose power the flowers are engendered; when the zephyr, too, with its dulcet breath, has breathed life into the tender new shoots in every copse and on every heath, and the young sun has run half his course in the sign of the Ram, and the little birds that sleep all night with their eyes open give song (so Nature prompts them in their hearts), then, as the poet Geoffrey Chaucer observed many years ago, folk long to go on pilgrimages. Only, these days, professional people call them conferences."

There is clearly comic potential in seeing conferences as modern-day pilgrimages, though I'm not convinced we can push the analogy very far. However, one way of getting students interested in apparently more inaccessible literature is to have them reinterpret it for their own times.

For anyone who's looking for a more conventional approach to Chaucer, Cambridge University have some useful resources. For the Oxbridge high-fliers, this website is great. And this one is good for for younger students.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012


I rather like the opening of this poem from Matthew Francis' Mandeville:

Of Bethlehem and Jerusalem

When you have used a knife or a cup and put it down,
after it comes to rest and your warmth has gone from it,
and though there is no mark of your hand on grip or bowl,

there is a moment when you still have each other's shape,
when your skin remembers it, and it remembers you,
like a part of yourself you left, and must go back for.

These are places that God used and has just put down.
A narrow city, well-walled and moated, that he used
for being born in. There is a church built on the spot.

Click here to download a PDF file from Matthew Francis about his creative reworking of The Travels of Sir John Mandeville.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Tim Gautreaux

I have been reading Tim Gautreaux's Waiting for the Evening News with a growing sense of excitement. Gautreaux, who was taught by Walker Percy, is sometimes linked with fellow Catholics, Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor. Not only does he hail from, and write about, the Deep South but his short stories also have wonderful dialogue and an acute sense of place.

However, while O'Connor often uses a moment of violence as a means of grace, Gautreaux's approach is to see crisis moments as opportunities for intervention. As he puts it in one very interesting interview: "There are several of my stories that you could call intervention stories, where somebody's in a bad way, and a character takes that step to help, breaks through the mirror, to go to the other side. There's no story unless somebody does something like that.... But all of that comes from being raised Catholic where we have been taught to help people who are less fortunate than we are, not just by praying for them but by actually going out and fixing their busted air conditioners and stuff."

This isn't the place for a full-blown review so I'll restrict myself to a couple of points about Gautreaux's Catholic approach to storytelling. In one story, 'Good for the Soul', he writes that "Sometimes saving a soul was like catching a dragonfly. You couldn't blunder up to it and trap it with a swipe of the hand." The same could be said of Gautreaux's approach in his fiction. As one of the characters in 'Misuse of Light' puts it in other context, to get to the truth you have to look at everything - "objects, shadows, even the blurry parts."

He also made these fascinating comments in the interview I mentioned above:

"I seem to run across two types of stories that worry me. One is the New Yorker type tale where everything is a joke and the reader can't really take anything, including death and disease, seriously. The reader feels he's not supposed to have intense emotions about anything because that's silly and bourgeois. And the other type of story I run across is a truly dark narrative about vicious people who don't learn anything from what they do and are not punished in any way and never get their comeuppance. Sometimes that's realism. And such stories belong in the canon. But the mistake a writer of those types of stories makes, I think, is to write all of his stories like that because then, cumulatively, the author gets away from realism.

"Now what do I mean by that? It's unrealistic to ignore compassion and the ability people have to cope and even triumph over their problems. You can write a story about how horrible it is to die from a certain type of cancer. That's realistic. Yet I run across many people who have coped with their cancer and are in fairly good shape the night they die. I've known people like this. Where is their literature? I read this student's story about a woman who was molested, was totally ruined emotionally, and eventually committed suicide. I've known many male and female students who were sexually abused, and most have coped in various ways. Some of them even write about it, which is disturbing to read, but nevertheless — maybe it's therapy — they're able to do it. Somehow people who suffer in this way or that are able to triumph over what they're going through. Where are the short stories about the small successes that people have dealing with their problems? Well, they're not out there because they're hard as hell to write without making them seem simple-minded or clichéd or insipid or sentimental. The most frightening thing in the world to an intelligent writer is sentimentality. He doesn't want a molecule of it in his fiction. But I think if you read enough and you understand how to blend humor and irony and the right tone in with the bad stuff, you can write a story that carries an emotional load yet is not sentimental in the least."


For the teachers among you, this analysis of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and this story written in its aftermath may be of interest.

These thoughts on writing short stories are also really useful in the classroom.