And a wonderful fortnight it was too! Reading two first class collections of short stories: Regi Claire’s Fighting It! and Ron Butlin’s Vivaldi and the Number 3, in preparation for a live event at Wishaw library, part of the North Lanarkshire Words 2011 festival, and the first event I have ever chaired! I think that calls for a picture.
More on the event later. Primary focus, as always here, to the books.
This was my second read of Fighting It! (published 2009). I don’t often reread but when I do it of my own volition (i.e not for a book group), it is because the book has on first reading become a firm favourite. And reading these stories confirmed my first impression. Full of drama and intense emotions – anger, frustration, sorrow, longing, regret, despair – these stories are completely absorbing. Claire explained that some are based on real life. The title story took as its starting point a newspaper cutting sent to the author by her mother regarding a young Swiss murderess and her very unpleasant crime. My favourite story, the poignantly sad Snow White and The Prince, was inspired by a chance meeting with an old woman in George Street, Edinburgh. The final story is based on the final day in the life of Claire’s first golden retriever (and is a must read for any dog lover – though make sure you have a tissue to hand). Shortlisted for the Saltire Book of the Year Award (alongside Scottish literary giantesses A L Kennedy and Janice Galloway), these stories are full of drama and really do deserve a wider audience. I’d quite happily read them again, and as proof of that have added Fighting It! to the reading list of my own book group.
Butlin’s Vivaldi and The Number 3 (published 2004) must be one of the quirkiest collections ever. In it famous musicians and philosophers of the past relive their lives in the alternative universe of modern times. Butlin’s passion for and deep knowledge of classical music provide the baseline in this volume, which does not demand similar afficionadoship of the reader. (Thankfully, given that I am tone deaf.) Top notes and melodies are light and playful, bouncing with anachronism, mischief and much hilarity. In musical terms, it is a concept album. Turns out that Butlin has set the stories of Vivaldi (who counts flying red-caped cardinals instead of sheep before sleeping) to music and now performs recitals with a difference at musical events around Scotland. Keep your eye on the Celtic Connections programme, he said. It’s a done deal.
On the night in Wishaw library, we discussed all of the above plus the voice in each author’s debut novel. Butlin’s tale of the descent into alcoholism, The Sound of My Voice (published 1987), declared by Irwine Welsh as “one of the greatest pieces of fiction to come out of Britain in the ’80’s” and reviewed here, was my Book of 2010. Claire’s The Beauty Room (published 2002), was longlisted for the Allen Lane Mind Book of the Year. In it she tells the story of Celia whose grief at the death of her mother is complicated by guilt at having disliked her. It’s a complex read and I found that my relationship with Celia mirrored hers with her mother! Best summarised in one word as conflicted. In common with Fighting It! there isn’t a bland word or image to be found in Claire’s writing. The opening scene, based on a childhood incident in which Claire almost choked on a boiled sweet, is exceptionally strong.
There was still time for Butlin, Edinburgh’s Makar (poet laureate) to read a couple of as yet unpublished poems and to delight with tales of strange things that happen when the city “wheels him out” for an appearance.
My final questions to Claire had to be asked in the run up to German Literature Month. Why does she choose to write in English and not her native Swiss German and does she think her stories would be different if she did? The decision to write in English was organic as she began writing only after she married Butlin and moved to Scotland in 1993. Swiss German is a spoken language. To write in German would mean writing in Hochdeutsch which is not as natural to her as writing English now. But she has thought about it and may do so in the future. Would her stories be feistier than they already are, I asked, given that German is a more aggressive language than English? (To my ears anyway …) I don’t know about that, she said. Take the stories of Peter Stamm, they’re very quiet.
And on that note, the librarians called time. The audience clapped and Butlin thanked me for being a reader! Believe me, the pleasure is mine and I enjoyed myself tremendously that night. I hope the audience did too. (Still awaiting feedback from North Lanarkshire.) It was a great end to an enjoyable fortnight ….. and this post commemorating Lizzy’s first time as live event chair is a fitting 600th entry on the blog. Who would have thought that this was the destination to which that first, tentative post was signalling?