I’m off to France, the long, Winter route way. Manchester- Southampton by train, overnight in a Premier Inn hotel, inc bath. Ah, the luxury! Then next morning Southampton over into France. Stay in icy, sparse house and set about cleaning it, doing routine minor maintenance. I’m here 8 days. There is no television, no internet connection, no landline, not even the local bar is open. Perfect isolation for a writer.
In between chores, rewrite the ending of my first YA (Young Adults) novel. The previous ending was too saccharine for the publisher. Of course, rewriting the ending means retuning the middle which ripples back to the beginning. Roll up sleeves and get on with it. Once immersed in the story, the rewrite is enjoyable. Two days later, its done, though in longhand and my handwriting is shiveringly indecipherable.
In the evenings, I read Gary Younge’s Who We Are (and should it matter?) – a critique of 21 century identity politics. It appears to be partly informed by the writings of sociologist Homi Bhabha. Or maybe Bhabha is on my mind at the moment.
I also read A Displaced Person/ Une personne deplacee by Nicole Avril. It’s about a Slovak girl landing in Paris in 1969. It captures beautifully the idealism of youth and the revolutionary hope of the time. I start reading a French translation of Dostoyevsky’s Crime & Punishment. Much of C&P was written while D was in grinding poverty and features the drunk, desperate and indigent- so mirroring much of my past life!
From a technical point of view, what the Literature Professors say becomes clear – how Flaubert’s technique was progress vis a vis ‘free indirect speech’. Dostoyevsky’s navigation around this element of technique / consciousness is uncomfortable compared with Flaubert (whose Madame Bovary I nevertheless found a bit boring compared with C&P).
But what about those toilets? While here, I form a warm, professional relationship with an Australian scriptwriter, this warmth fuelled mainly by (1) helping her unblock her two toilets and in doing so covering myself in shit and learning a great pool of new French words from the villagers who eventually come out to help us, cossetted by strong cappuccinos and plentiful double cognacs (2) rescuing the scriptwriter’s cat daily from her rooftop, where it loves to climb but meows for 6 hours trying to get down, and (3) attending a get-together at which I explain in halting French the subject of my novel: an endeavour that leaves the French language bleeding on the canvas and earns me hoots of applause (applause intended primarily I suspect to encourage me not to embark on any further long forays into French storytelling for the rest of the night).
Back to Dostoyevsky. His point in C&P (or one of his points) was that committing a heinous crime often contains within it the punishment – the conscience of the character is forever troubled by the act. This is a useful handle for one of the characters in my PhD novel, though my own experiences suggest it perfectly possible for people to commit heinous acts without ever carrying any weight of guilt on their conscience. Dostoyevsky, I realise now, was a forerunner of Patricia Highsmith (of Strangers On A Train fame). Her novel, Deep Water, is one of the few novels I have found almost too scary to finish – much scarier than a couple of blocked French toilets!