Wednesday, February 27, 2013

'Home to the Lake' by Bronwen Jones

Excerpt from Home to the Lake, a novel about the intertwined lives of a feisty spinster and an unruly lake, and the impact on both of ‘progress’ and colonial ‘land hunger’. The story is set in the remote south of New Zealand, between 1894 and 1968.

Bronwen Jones is a former journalist and current corporate writer, based at Diamond Harbour near Christchurch, New Zealand’s earthquake city. She is the recipient of NZ Society of Authors edit/assessment, and mentoring grants, and has a Master in Creative Writing (U. of Auckland). Home to the Lake is her first novel and is yet to find an agent or publisher. Meanwhile, Bronwen is writing her second historical novel.

This excerpt is from Chapter One, and is part of the submission for the first round of the Historical Novel Society International Award 2012/13, in which Home to the Lake longlisted. Jem Figge is trying to persuade her great-niece, Lyn, to leave the city, and come and look after her on her dilapidated lakeside farmlet, where the old woman lives with her cats and possums for company.

“The best solution, Lyn, the very best thing by far, is that you come out here to live with me and help me. You can ride your motorcycle to work, it is no distance to town these days with a fast vehicle. You see, don’t you, that this is the best thing?”
Lyn sits back. “Best thing for whom?” It is barely a whisper but it slices my heart. She twists her Great-grandfather’s precious Labour card in her fingers, and the longer she sits there, the steeper the downward slant of my sinking gut.
“Oh god." The crack in her voice is another warning and, in my mind, my hands cover my ears. "I can’t live out here, much as I love visiting. Sandy and me, we’ve just got a flat together in Sumner and we’re...Anyway, well, it’s this place too. Damp. Swamp. Wind howling off the lake. Big trees hovering like zombies in The Night of the Living Dead. It’s...oh....”
But she does not have to say the word because her face and body scream it at me. Depressing. I feel the slap of a cold hand.
“Your Great-grandfather bounced you on his knee when you were just a little dot.” My throat is stripped. “He is here, in the walls, in the air.”
The silly girl looks around as if expecting to see his ghost and if I were not so grieved I would laugh. She has always said this place is haunted. I know it is, and that is the way I like it.
Through the window, another black cloud bank heads this way and in it I see the black horses of Armageddon. I am dead quiet. “If you will not live here with me, then it is the end.”
Her mouth works, like her Great-grandfather’s did in those rare moments when words escaped him. “The end of what? Whose end? Are you saying I’ll cause you to…?”
She shrieks a little laugh and shakes her head, then gets to her feet, shifts the kettle off the heat and stares out the window. She comes back at last and faces me, leaning on the back of Father’s chair.
“The truth is,” she says softly. “I’ve been having a think too. You’re right. An end is coming. You can’t go on living out here alone. No one to look after you. That fall could have been much worse.”
I am unsure whether to nod or deny—these failings are all the more reason for her to live here.
“What if you fall and break something and can’t get up? You’d be stuck on the floor for days.”
“People come in—Peg, Cliff, Gail and the kiddies, Mr Suckling.”
“Not every day.”

The lives of a feisty spinster and an unruly lake are intertwined

This is true. Sometimes I go many days without seeing a soul and in my unbearable loneliness I stand at my letterbox in case a neighbour should pass, or I wheel out my creaking bicycle and ride around to Rangimarie.
Lyn paces the kitchen. “You don’t eat enough either. You’ve just fed Gail’s Red Cross meal to the cats. Again. For all I know you eat dog roll.”
Anxiously, I glance at her but she is not serious. What she does not know is that dog roll is not entirely unpalatable. She lets out a long sigh and wrenches around for something in her pants pocket.
“Here. I was going to talk to Peg first. But take a look.”
It is a pamphlet of some sort and she smoothes it on the table, leans on the back of the chair again. On it is a picture of a smiling silver-haired couple, a woman in a beige jersey frock and pearls, and a man in a knitted cable jumper the colour of the lake on a clear winter’s day. I am greatly taken with the contentedness that shines in their handsome faces.
I look to Lyn for a hint and am jolted by what I see there. Something akin, I’m sure, to what Jesus saw in Judas. Something dark moves within me and I feel my expression change to that of an old bitch who knows she is about to be put down.
“It’s a residence,” my Great-niece says, her brightness false now. “Each unit is standalone. Independent living. Maintenance taken care of. It’s a really good solution. Sandy thinks so too. She…”
This Sandra woman. I might have guessed. Small and neat in her navy twinset and pursed up tighter than a prune. She will not come inside but stands chatting on the doorstep pretending to be friendly, or hides in the car. Allergic to cats, Lyn says, and afraid of the possums. I am not good enough for her, apparently, and I cannot abide her.
“…shops close by,” Lyn goes on, “school children passing, people to talk to. You’re allowed to have a bird.”
“A bird.” And I am a parrot. A stunned parrot.
“A canary, say, or a budgie. Anyway, it’s close to the lake, this place. In Halswell. I can bring you out for drives in Sandy’s car.”
Now I see. I am no longer fooled by that picture. Glass shards prick the back of my neck and a familiar black worm squirms below my ribcage. Lyn wants to put me away, pass a death sentence, death among the decaying.
“You want to kill me.” My words have been forced through a mangle.
Her elbow slips from the back of the chair. “Not true.” She paces again. “Lordy, if I wanted to get rid of you I could just leave you here alone and you’d starve yourself to death like you’re already doing.”
“You will kill me,” I say again. “People die in these homes. Daniel died.”
“Grandpop was ancient and he had emphysema.”
“But he died in a home. Samuel too.”
She does that eye-rolling thing. “Great-uncle Samuel had to have round-the-clock care. He went la-la.”
“So. Do you think I am la-la? Is that it?”
“No. Of course not. But people die in homes because they’re old and—”
“No! They die because they’re stuck behind prison walls and the life is sucked out of them. What do you know? What can you know?” I sweep Father’s shoebox away, knocking over the cruet and sending salt in a spray across the tablecloth. Swiftly, I take a pinch and flick it at the devil that lurks over my left shoulder.
“In any case,” I say, “what would I do about my animals, about Stony Point?”
She leans forward, her face eager. “You could sell up. The Crown lease would fetch a bit and you could buy a single unit. I think the Council has some sort of subsidy too. You’ll have no more worries about this place, who’ll farm it, whether it slides into the lake.”

'Home to the Lake' was longlisted for the HNS International Award 2012/2013

Time pauses. Another future wafts alluringly before my eyes, a future without the worry of rates and lease payments, without roofs that leak, with no land to flood, no animals to look to you for sustenance. No ties. Almost like a prison, perhaps, but with some freedom and no dangerous inmates. I drift in a soundless mist, light in a vacuum of no responsibilities and no striving. Nothing to manage or control, nothing to save.
But who will I have to love?
I feel myself slipping. In the end, I cannot bear the loss of my animal friends and the loss of my ability to do for myself. The loss of Stony Point and its ghosts. The loss of myself.
Dark clouds suck the light from the room and out over the lake thunder crashes. In my mind, I see the black swans startle and take flight. Then a black serpent squirms beneath my ribcage, flicking its deadly tail. The Crown lease would fetch a bit. The girl has calculated my worth.
Fury moves in like a dark heat. At last I really know what this girl is up to. She is not the first and no doubt not the last. I see Father shaking his fist on the steps of Daniel’s place. Bugger off. Lace curtains move. Come on home, Miss Figge. Peggy’s young voice. I see her, gym slip fluttering in the icy wind off the sea.
“Oh no you don’t, girlie.” My voice is a heron’s croak. My feet take me, step by furious step, around the table towards her. The possums hiss, the cats move back. “You want me gone so you can get this place. Don’t you? Don’t you?
She steps away, her face frozen. But I am not fooled. It is very clear to me now. She will sell Stony Point and take the money.
Lyn’s face melts from shock to some sort of understanding. “No, no. Aunty Jem, it’s nothing like that.” Stammering. Tripping over her own booted feet.
“Nothing like what?”
“You know. I heard Dad tell Mum about...Gosh. No. It’s nothing like that.”
“Don’t you judge me,” I shriek, spraying spittle. “What would you know of that? What business is it of yours? Now get out before I chase you down the hall with my broom.”
She snatches up her jacket and, facing away, takes a long moment to zip it up. Then she turns and holds up her palms. “Come on, cut it out. Just think about that residence for the future. That’s all.”
Jagged light rips through the darkened kitchen and a moment later the house jumps with a thump of thunder.
“Now I’m really going,” Lyn yells. “Or I’ll be forced off the road by sideways rain.”
In spite of my reptilian fury she touches me lightly on the shoulder then she is gone, stomping down the hall and throwing this back at me: “For god’s sake, let those poor bloody cats go free. You don’t want to live in a prison. Neither do they.”
The front door slams. 

                                                     by Bronwen Jones

Bronwen Jones, a gifted novelist based in Christchurch, New Zealand

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Next Page: In praise of the massive, sprawling 19th-century novel (or, un-hunchbacking the mind)

Mitchell James Kaplan picked up the new edition of 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' to re-read. He was struck with awe. Then he re-watched the movie. Of course, the book was better. Way better. Not to knock cinema, but nothing transports like a novel.

As a young man just out of college, nearly penniless and all too free, I used to lie in my attic room in Paris reading through the classics of French literature. I still recall, as vividly as any real-world experience, clawing my way into 19th-century Parisian société with Balzac's Rastignac; strolling through the countryside around Combray with the narrator of Marcel Proust's "À la recherche du temps perdu"; belting out drinking songs with Rabelais' Pantagruel in 16th-century Chinon; and wandering haphazardly into a 15th-century Fête des Fous (a Festival of Fools) in Victor Hugo's "Notre-Dame de Paris" (misleadingly known as "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" in translation).

Everyman's Library "has recently republished "Hunchback" in a new English-language edition that reproduces the eminently readable, anonymous translation used in the first Everyman edition of 1910. I decided to voyage back to the Paris of Claude Frollo, La Esmeralda and Quasimodo not merely for the satisfaction of visiting it a second time but because I wondered how it would affect me after all these years.

I felt a warm frisson of familiarity as I became lost, once again, in cramped, twisted streets, surrounded by vagabonds and gossips, philosophers and priests, narcissistic soldiers and jealous heiresses. I also discovered byways and alleys that I had failed to notice during my previous sojourn.

To read "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" is to follow the intersecting fortunes of sharply defined, often contrasting characters: an indigent, self-important writer who blames his audience for failing to admire his work; a tortured, passionate priest; a beautiful gypsy girl whose stubborn naivete becomes her undoing; a misfit whose ugliness is exceeded only by his wisdom and sense of honor. It is to have one's mind pumped up with reflections about inner and outer beauty, love and infatuation, "science" (or learning) and passion, architectures of stone and desire, intolerance, hypocrisy and the church.

Victor Hugo filled his first full-length novel with a great deal besides characters and story: entire chapters of expository prose, reflections on progress and decay, quotations from the classics and lavish descriptions that go on and on until it seems the narrator has explored every nook and cranny of a room or street -- or a cathedral -- and made it all dazzlingly real.

Hugo uses his exhaustive knowledge of history as the backdrop for his tale, not its source. We encounter a profusion of surprising details, such as the fact that the city of Paris was once confined to the walled Ile de la Cité (where Notre Dame was later erected), with the Seine as its moat, or that in the 15th century the St. Michel bridge was covered with houses. But Hugo allows himself the freedom to create ex nihilo characters whose conflicting desires and ideals are big enough to position them in the foreground of his vast canvas.

The character whose emotions and behaviors drive the story is not Quasimodo, the hunchback, but Dom Claude Frollo, the archdeacon. Hugo paints his "villain" as a man of lofty principles struggling with himself at every step along the path to perdition. Dom Claude supports both his wastrel brother, Jehan, whom he tries desperately to steer toward an honorable life, and the hunchback Quasimodo, whose own mother rejected him because of his deformities. Frollo believes -- erroneously, as Hugo demonstrates -- that the pursuit of "science," or knowledge as opposed to passion, should advance men toward goodness, and applies all his energies toward this goal. His struggle to dominate his passions becomes a war against his own being, with tragic results.

As its French title suggests, however, "Notre-Dame de Paris" is not just the story of a man. It is a tableau that aims to re-create a time and a place, at the center of which stands the magnificent church. Notre Dame is described as the sprawling, complex, irreducible product of myriad, often-conflicting architectural ambitions and thus becomes a symbol not only of its time but of Hugo's novel itself.

In all these ways, "Notre-Dame de Paris" defies 21st-century notions about what a historical novel should be. Most contemporary historical novels are based on biographies of people who really existed. Editors and teachers of writing warn aspiring novelists not to "drown" their narratives in research or provide too many details or digressions. Books like "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," though, written during the 19th-century heyday of the novel, were rich, heady concoctions in which philosophy, melodrama, essays on history, and satire all simmered together like leeks and oxtails in a savory pot-au-feu.

Not only did Victor Hugo provide reams of information tangential to his story, he employed an enormous vocabulary that is sometimes compared with Shakespeare's for its breadth and nuance. Today, in contrast, authors are instructed to avoid unusual words. Editors and publishers, including those who market books primarily to an educated readership, remind writers that simplicity is synonymous with literary elegance.
One of the hallmarks of Western culture, of course, is that it changes as technologies advance. Many of Bach's contemporaries resisted the well-tempered clavier, but it proved more durable than older tuning systems. As a result, baroque musicians were able to modulate (change keys) more readily than their Renaissance forebears. Music became quite complex ... until the classical revolution, led by Mozart and others, heralded a return to simplicity and elegance.

Similarly, the advent of a relatively new narrative technology -- the movies -- has affected the way we create and tell stories.

Movies, of course, owe a great deal to literature. The innovators of cinema translated tried-and-true literary devices into visual and auditory experiences that moved audiences to laughter, tears and wonderment in fairly predictable and sometimes profitable ways.

What the consumers of culture often ignore, though, is that movies, in turn, have influenced literature, too.
The book publishing industry today is financially tethered to the movie industry. When movie producers believe a novel can be translated into a successful film, they pay handsomely for the rights, and if the resulting movie does become a hit, its success can lead to vastly increased sales of the book. Many editors therefore dream of acquiring novels that will be adapted into movies. Books by authors like Dan Brown and Michael Crichton, indeed, read like blueprints for films.

Novels, however, are not movies or even screenplays. A typical screenplay is only about a 120 pages long, double-spaced. Of all the words therein, only the dialogue makes it into the movie as verbal information. The other words on the page suggest to the director and cameraman what they are to shoot and to actors how they are to move and behave.

In a screenplay, dialogue is written with wide margins, down the center of the page. Movies therefore contain few words, compared with novels. And in order to be believable, dialogue must employ only commonly spoken language.

Novels, on the other hand, are nothing but verbal information. Those qualities of Hugo's "Hunchback" that make it different from most novels today -- lengthy descriptions, sometimes going on for 20 pages or more; whole chapters of exposition; narrative digressions -- are precisely the characteristics of 19th-century novels that rarely translate to film.

There are exceptions. A poetic movie that relies heavily on photography, design and creative editing, like F.W. Murnau's "Sunrise," David Lynch's "Eraserhead" or Godfrey Reggio's "Koyaanisqatsi" can certainly be called "descriptive." Movies like "Pulp Fiction" call attention to their use of digressive dialogue and storytelling. Such films, however, tend to be independent productions, challenging movie studio norms. And exposition per se almost never works in movies. Indiana Jones may nominally be a professor, but he spends little time lecturing, at least while on-camera.

Because most movies emphasize storytelling and characterization and de-emphasize description, digression and exposition, and because movies are (perhaps) the dominant form of storytelling within our culture, audiences have come to expect these qualities in all forms of narrative. Sensitive to the demands of their marketplace, editors and creative writing teachers reinforce these values.

What happens, then, when filmmakers try to translate a book like "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" into cinema? To find out, I re-rented the most widely praised of the many movies based on Hugo's novel, the 1939 production starring Charles Laughton and Maureen O'Hara.

The first thing I noticed (other than the inappropriate choral music that accompanies the opening credits) was that the characters I had visualized while reading the novel bore little resemblance to those in the movie -- even though I had seen the movie years before. In casting Maureen O'Hara as La Esmeralda, for example, the filmmakers bowed to the studio requirement that the face of a screen star adorn the poster, rather than respecting the author's depiction of a naive, spirited teenager. Thus they destroyed her character and much of the story itself.

From there on, despite Laughton's memorable performance as Quasimodo, it is nearly all downhill. Unable to contain a rambling, multifaceted novel within the 90-minute movie paradigm, and clearly afraid of offending audiences with what might be perceived as the anti-church message of Hugo's tale, the adapters cut and pasted the scenes they thought most dramatic, misinterpreted characters and invented others, placed anachronistic, on-the-nose dialogue about the evils of racism and aristocracy in their mouths -- and utterly ignored the author's intent. They reduced the complex, fascinating character of Frollo into a cliche movie villain. And again, this is generally considered the best of the film adaptations.

Of course, it is not fair to compare a classic novel with its disappointing cinematic derivative. Movies can be, and often are, moving and memorable. Nor would I claim that linear narrative, concision and simplicity are bad aesthetic values. The point is not that movies are evil or their influence pernicious, but that we should continue to cherish the different kinds of experiences that movies and novels can offer. As the French say, vive la différence!

With the digital age transforming all manner of media, Everyman's Library makes a good case for the printed book. It preserves classics in an affordable but collectible-quality format, with original introductions, authors' bibliographies and chronologies for those who desire context. Printed on smooth, acid-free paper, with silk ribbon markers and half-round spines, these volumes are conceived for readers who enjoy turning physical pages, sitting in an easy chair before the fireplace on a chilly evening. This new "Hunchback of Notre Dame" is an exquisite pleasure to hold and explore.

Fortunately, there is still room in our culture for competing aesthetics. Many contemporary authors still produce inventive, fecund, immersive novels. Readers consume them just as eagerly as other, equally worthwhile books whose focus may be more narrow or whose structure more disciplined. Book lovers still cherish, too, the great novels we have inherited from bygone times, despite changes in our culture and tastes.

Mitchell James Kaplana novelist living in Mt. Lebanon, has worked as a translator in France and a screenwriter in Los Angeles. His historical novel "By Fire, By Water" (Other Press) received the 2011 Independent Publishers Award Gold Medal for Historical Fiction and, last month, the Adelina Della Pergola Prize in Venice, Italy. He is at work on a second novel, set in Roman Judaea during the birth of Christianity and modern Judaism ( and

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