READS OF THE YEAR 2018: CHIN LI

James Wood How Fiction Works

James Wood has been on my radar for some time, but it was only this autumn that I came across his delightful How Fiction Works (Jonathan Cape, 2008). It is my good fortune to have the chance to read this very inspiring text despite being ten years late! Although I have committed myself to learning the craft of fiction-writing, I do not have any desire to read “How to” books. This unconventional work written by Wood is entirely different from the “10 do’s and 10 don’ts” type technical manual, and reading it is more like a cosy fireside chat with a friend in a comfy room during a cold, dark evening, where repetitions, deviations or hesitations are part and parcel of the enjoyment! The book consists of 123 numbered paragraphs, from a few lines to a few pages long. While these paragraphs are grouped under chapters with titles like “Character” or “Dialogue”, there is no didactic instruction on how to write dialogues or how to characterise the protagonists in a story; and there are chapters with titles such as “Flaubert and the Rise of the Flâneur” or “A Brief History of Consciousness”, which point to the divergent nature of Wood’s way of thinking. Wood roams far and wide, both in time and in scope, across the world of literature, referring to particular details or linguistic nuances in familiar or not so familiar stories as he is mulling over specific issues to do with the art of fiction-writing. In the end, his book can be seen as a defence of realism, but not the kind that rejects the likes of science fiction, surrealism, or other forms of experimental works. In Wood’s words, “Realism, seen broadly as truthfulness to the way things are, cannot be mere verisimilitude, cannot be mere lifelikeness, or lifesameness, but what I must call lifeness: life on the page, life brought to different life by the highest artistry” (p. 186). This is surely the one book that I will dip in and out all the time, in the never-ending process of learning to write.

Sarah Moss Ghost Wall

Ever since I read Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children in early 2017, I have been following her work, and the most recent one I read is her novella-length, first-person monologue Ghost Wall (Granta, 2018) ― a story about the teenage narrator’s brief experience of living in the wild with her mum and dad (a bus driver), a group of university students and their professor in an attempt to re-enact the daily life of an Iron Age community on a hill in Northumberland. This was an experiment in “experiential archaeology”, and the narrator, Silvie (short for Sulevia), was finishing school and desperately wanted to get away from the control of her father, who was an aficionado for anything to do with prehistoric human societies on the British Isles, particularly in his local area. The main theme of the story is the relationship between Silvie and her father, who was a total tyrant and controlled every aspect of life in his household. His tyranny sometimes involved physical violence, not only on Silvie but also on her timid mother. As an autodidact, Silvie’s father managed to get to know the professor who invited him and his family to take part in this exercise of re- enactment. While the “experiential archaeology” project provides the setting where the fraught relationships within Silvie’s family are highlighted, Sarah Moss has foregrounded the Iron Age tradition of human sacrifice as the historical precedent of the contemporary patriarchal tyranny embodied in the behaviour or Silvie’s father. The book starts with a vivid tableau of the sacrificial killing of a teenage girl in a Northumberland Iron Age community (the only third-person narration in the entire book), and its silent brutality is echoed near the end of the book when Silvie was forced by her father (and the professor) to re-enact precisely such a scene of human sacrifice. Although the denouement was one of hope, in contrast to the primordial ritual killing portrayed at the beginning of the story, the threat of patriarchal violence is left unresolved. Sarah Moss does not want her readers to believe justice has won, but to stare horror in the face without flinching. That is undoubtedly the responsibility of fiction.

Graham Swift Mothering Sunday

Graham Swift is the novelist I admire most. When the news of Kazuo Ishiguro winning the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature broke, my first reaction was dismay. Not that I grudged Ishiguro’s win, my feeling was more a sadness about Graham Swift being overlooked. Swift and Ishiguro are good friends and belong to the same generation of distinguished British novelists whose work came to be widely read from the last twenty years of the 20th Century. I have read, and re-read, all of Swift’s novels, and am deeply appreciative of his quiet effort in cultivating the English novel as the quintessential literary artform. I first read Mothering Sunday (Scribner, 2016) two years ago, but it was when re-reading it this winter that its power to captivate me has become absolutely clear. The story is full of sensuality and intimacy (not sex per se) ― it is about the love affair between Jane, a maid of a country-house, and the only surviving son of an upper-class family of a neighbouring estate. While there is no shortage of good novels with a heroic love affair across the class divide as the main storyline, Mothering Sunday is an achievement of a different order altogether. The mystery in the plot turns out to be an unresolved tragedy, but that is not the central theme. What shines through the work is not pessimism, but an optimism that transcends the meaninglessness of life.

Like the Modigliani on the cover of the book, Swift’s writing ushers the reader into the intimate world of the relationship between two people, not only the powerful physical desire that bound them together, but a whole history of the mundane little daily routines that made the liaison possible. The low-key, conversational style that is so characteristic of Swift’s writing opens up an imaginative universe at once ordinary and magical. The way he writes is no doubt crucial in rendering this novel complete, as a fully realised artwork, at just 132 pages. It is an abstemious work: its brevity is in no way a barrier to it being serious literature, but has accentuated the intensity and intimacy of the world it has created. The unsuspecting reader might think Mothering Sunday is simply a romance between two individuals. This is true at one level; but the novel is more importantly about Jane’s love of words, about her starting to collect words, taking the first steps towards becoming a writer herself, on the back of a momentous event happening to her on Mothering Sunday in 1924. On that day, she, a lowly maid, wandered about stark naked in a large country house belonging to her employer’s neighbours. Perhaps the beginnings of the writing life lie within the experiencing of the sheer physicality of life.

Graham Swift writes in a distinctive, almost ruminative style. There is a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, of mixing and blending, of meandering and zigzagging, of going round in circles and criss-crossing different worlds, of veering on a tangent and getting entangled with seemingly irrelevant details and detours. And yet this repeated play does not feel repetitive. After all, consciousness is never neat and tidy or linear, but full of random and messy bits and pieces, repetitions, diversions and cul-de-sacs. The reader of Swift’s novels gradually discovers how all the strands come together and perhaps may realise, like what T S Eliot has famously said, We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.

Perhaps Swift’s work could be described as “conventional”, in that he is telling a story in a way that the reader can follow without having any knowledge about deconstructionist or other post-structuralist literary theories. He is certainly not wont
to using formal experimental devices in his novels (anti-grammatical sentences, deliberately blank pages, the total absence of punctuations, etc), but he has nonetheless managed to chisel out a style that possesses a distinct experimental feel. He remains the most important novelist whom I continue to learn from, in my journey of becoming a writer.