Friday, 25 April 2014

Joys of indexing

I know you won't believe me, but I truly enjoy compiling an index for my books. Most people I know hate it and will pay someone to do it or let the publisher do it. Once, in a tight moment, I asked my publisher to do the index and deduce the costs from my royalties. Of course I had to do it all over again myslef. I am the only one who knows what is important in my book and should go into the index. I am the only one who knows when “dream” is a cognitive process and therefore should go into the index, as opposed to when it is part of a content discussion and therefore shouldn't. I am the only one who knows that “the death of the author” should neither be indexed under death nor author.

Indexing is the first and only stage at which you realise what your book is really about because you see which terms and names pop up on every other page, rather than those in your subheadings. The first and only stage when you notice all small inconsistencies, such as alternating between “dystopian literature” and “dystopian fiction”. When you see that sometimes you provide authors for titles and sometimes you don't, and it will be a hell to index these titles. When you have to admit that some terms and concepts are superfluous because you only mention them once in passing and never explain. When you regret that you have mentioned names in the body of text rather than in in-text references because they quite unnecessarily get a separate index entry. Or the other way round, with the in-text reference only, an important source is not reflected in the index. And so on, infinitely.

Sadly, at this stage it is too late to make any changes. I used to compile the index with the first draft checking for exactly these small stupid details. For some reason, I didn't this time, and now I am punished for my laziness. Of course nobody will notice, because the only reason people use indices is to check whether they are in them and how often. (At least, this is the only reason I use indices in other people's books).

PS In Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle there is a character who can tell the author's personality from an index. I have no doubts.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Gabriel Garcia Marquez in memoriam

There has been a lot written about the great Gabriel Garcia Marquez these days, and I cannot add much except one detail that made a deep impression on me when I read it, many many years ago. In fact, so many years ago I am not sure which book it was, but I believe it is The Autumn of the Patriarch. It is the episode with the lotttery, when each year a young child is asked to pull out a random ball with a winning number. Only it is not a random ball, but the winning ball is heated, and the child is instructed to choose the hot ball, and the dictator always wins. The children are kept in custody so that they cannot reveal the secret. At one point, they are all taken on a boat trip as a reward for their services. By a strange coincidence, the boat sinks.

I am sure most people outside totalitarian contries think that this is satire and grotesque. For me it was just another confirmation of the bitter truth.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Writing First World War for children, part 2

Another reflection I made at the First World War symposium was that my grandchildren presumably don't know anything about it.

Of course, I didn't know much about it when I was a child, once again, because it was totally eclipsed by the 1917 revolution and the subsequent Communist coup that eventually harvested more lives than the Great War on both sides – but our history books didn't tell us about it. Our history books told us that the war was instigated by world imperialism, and it was a blessing for Russia that it finished off the Russian empire and established paradise on earth.

I don't know what my Swedish grandchildren's history books tell them about the Great War. Probably a short paragraph with a blurry black-and-white picture explaining that somewhere, far away, there was a war that Sweden did not participate in. Sweden had its own problems then. It was an impoverished country, and a third of its population had emigrated. That story takes many pages in the history books. I guess it's inevitable, because history is always written from a particular perspective, and what is major for one history writer is a footnote for another. Yet being a displaced hedgehog, I cannot help asking myself: can I do something to make my grandchildren aware of the Great War that did not affect their forefathers? And do I want to? Why would they care? And then I think about red poppies, and the war monuments by the Cambridge railway station and in our little village, and lists of perished soldiers in King's Chapel, and yes, I want my grandchildren to know about it, just as I want British children to know about it. And history books won't help. You need the power of fiction to get the message across. Or rather, get the feeling across.

And this is why I have sent copies of War Horse to my grandchildren and encouraged their parents to take them to see the film. And I will read the books that I learned about at the symposium and see whether I want my grandchildren to read them.

Most of all, I wish somebody would write a book about a Swedish child who by serendipity gets caught in the Great War. 

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Writing First World War for children, part I

Yesterday I went to London for a symposium in the British Library on writing for children about First World War. I went because I am involved with the group that organised it, and I am not sure what my expectations were. War Horse is one of the best books ever written about any war, and it is also a very interesting phenomenon because the novel, the theatre performance and the film are all brilliant, each in its own way. I was particularly sceptical about the film, but it was excellent. Anyway, Michael Morpurgo was obviously there, but I must admit that I wasn't familiar with the other three writers. They had fifteen minutes each to tell the audience why and how they write about First World War for children, and they had very different approaches, which was very interesting. I have already bought three books.

If I had moderated the discussion I would have probably asked quite different questions from those posed because I am an academic and interested in boring things, like fictionality. How do you make today's children understand that all this really happened? That it isn't fantasy, adventure, dystopia, computer game? Many books use authentic letters, photos and other documents, but why is great-great-Uncle Will more real than any adventure hero? It's all once upon a time, not my time, not your time, but somebody else's time. How can we make children feel the pain and the horror? Do we want them to feel the horror?

But mostly the questions were good, and the answers better still. I was pleased to hear that the writers believed that French and even German fates deserved to be portrayed.

And yet I could not help thinking: what about the Eastern front? The writers discussed at length how the war between the UK and Germany started, but the war actually started between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, very far away from the UK. I am sure the writers knew it, but for them it was a small fact of little consequence. Their war was elsewhere. (I know I am unfair).

And for Russia, the war brought about the worst human tragedy of all times, the aftermath of which we see today in Ukraine, and who knows how close we are to Third World War. I hope I am wrong.

I am deeply moved by British memory of the Great War. I am a bit envious. I wish I had a generational memory I could cherish, but for my country, these was no victory.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

In a country churchyard

I have never been particularly interested in writers. I have had the privilege of meeting quite a few great writers, but it was exciting because they were interesting people, not because they were writers. I seldom visit writers' homes and museums, and when I do, I never feel anything special, never a sense of awe, of seeing the actual desk, the actual pen or inkwell. The only really weird feeling I had was in Thomas Mann's house in Nida, where I truly sensed the writer's presence, just for a moment.

But every now and then a writer's home can offer something amusing, such as Dickens' works in his museum in London, from which he had public readings and that have notes in the margins: “Raise voice” or “Significant pause”.

Last week I was on a holiday in Kent, and my friend Morag had told me that one of the numerous churches in Romney Marsh had E. Nesbit's grave. Now, I do have a very special relationship with Nesbit, or rather with her books, but I had never bothered to find out about where she lived and died. Yet the goal of finding a grave is more enticing than simply visiting a number of very similar – unless you are an expert – churches. But there was nothing about Nesbit's grave on my guidebooks. The Lonely Planet England guide was conspicuously brief on Kent; the authors must have had unpleasant experiences. None of the many local guidebooks and folders in the cottage we were renting showed any recognition of one of the greatest British children's writers. I gave up, because combing through twelve churchyards is not my idea of a relaxing holiday.

We were driving along the coast, actually looking for a reasonable road to take us home to the cottage when I saw a sign to Romney Marsh Visitors' Centre. I like such institutions, absurd as they are with their guidebooks, maps, ceramic birds, cheap binoculars and bad coffee. The coffee was exceptionally bad, and the brochures hardly promising, but I have a habit of picking up any readable materials, so I picked up one about the churches, and then – wow! “The grave of E.Nesbit, the author of The Railway Children”. The Railway Children is not my favourite; frankly, I have never understood why it is considered a masterpiece, but never mind. St Mary's in the Marsh was just a few miles away by a horrifyingly winding road, and there was no parking except at the nearby pub that I had no intention to visit.

I don't know what I had expected, but probably a conventional grave. I should have known that Nesbit's grave would be unconventional. I have repeatedly told a story about Nesbit, the origin of which I don't remember, so it may not be accurate and in fact may be about someone else. The story goes: two ladies are exchanging gossip, and one says: “Have you heard that E. Nesbit has died?” “Has she really? So unlike her”.