Snow on the Danube by Francis Gilbert

Snow on the Danube (Blue Door Press 2019) evokes the lost world of Budapest during and between two great wars  and is recounted in the inimitable voice of Count Zoltán Pongrácz: a fussy hypochondriac who becomes an unlikely and compromised hero when the Fascists take over his beloved country and he is forced to rescue his adored, wayward sister Anna. An unlikely comedy, a document of filial love and a compelling portrait of the horrors of war, Snow on the Danube is the story of one man’s quest to save everything he loves most: his family, his friends – and, perhaps, his soul.

The Beginning    1920

Hungary wore black on the day of my birth. Street vendors tied black ribbons around bouquets of flowers; archdukes donned their darkest garb and thrummed their fingers on gold-tasselled armrests. Tram-drivers left their trolley buses in the depot and sat with their children in their tiny flats. Priests and civil servants hoisted black flags and watched them flutter in the air. The streets were empty. Church bells rang. Gamekeepers cancelled their early morning walks; they slumped in their chairs, hounds at their feet. Maids failed to make their daily trips to the grocers and lay on camp beds in their cubby-holes; bakers neglected to light their ovens and open their shutters. The keeper at the City Zoo threw a few thin slabs of meat to the lions and slouched home.

It was a day of national mourning. In Paris, a treaty was signed that butchered Hungary. Two-thirds of the kingdom was turned over to Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. Hungary had supported the losing side in the First World War.

My father had two reasons to wear black on June 4, 1920. Not only had he lost the family’s monumental Transylvanian castle in the unceremonious carve-up of the Treaty of Trianon but he had also, on the very same day, to endure the birth of his son.

My memories from those very early years are vague. I don’t remember much about the family’s life at our chateau in Villány. I can recall my father’s imperious voice barking orders at the workmen who toiled all day at the bottom of our ornamental garden. ‘Down there! Careful now. Easy with those girders!’

His shirt sleeves were rolled up and his bald head seemed to glow as he twirled his silver-topped cane. In his polished hunting boots he was a mass of perspiring muscle, mushrooming dust as he heaved bricks. I had no idea what was going on but I guessed it was of the utmost importance.

My first memory of my sister is of her informing me about those mysterious, grunting proceedings. Her black hair brushed my cheek as she leaned towards me and whispered: ‘They’re building a bridge. Papa says it’s very important that the lions have tongues.’

Trying to connect the idea of the bridge with lions was very difficult for me. I imagined that Papa would place real ones on the bridge and this was the whole purpose of the exercise: to give the lions a decent home.

This supposition was no more ridiculous than what he was attempting to do. My father, being fanatical about bridges, thought that he could somehow rectify the dire financial problems afflicting his vineyards by building a replica of Budapest’s Chain Bridge at the bottom of his garden. He persisted in believing in this illusion for a long time, even after the construction of the imitation bridge had bankrupted him, forced him to sell the chateau and move permanently back to Budapest.

Many years later, when I would stroll with my father on the actual bridge in the Budapest twilight, he would sigh and point to the monumental but tongueless lions, commenting regretfully: ‘People were coming from miles around to see my Chain Bridge at Villány. The archduke Frederick himself greatly admired it. That bridge was the only thing that wretched estate had going for it: it was a rotten, dry, wizened sort of place. We never grew a single decent grape there.’

After the Count’s death, I discovered that this was an outright lie. Although my father sold the chateau, he continued to own vast tracts of the vineyards. He had the good sense to appoint an honest and practical Magyar supervisor to run them all. This doughty chap wasn’t even discouraged by the lack of any venue to make the wine in and converted some abandoned cellars on the estate for that purpose. The fantastic Hungarian wines that this chateau-less estate produced was the only real source of income that my family had.

But, of course, I knew none of this as a tiny child gazing on all those workmen toiling away at the banks of the small river that babbled at the bottom of our garden. At the grand opening of the bridge, which most of the neighbouring villages attended, my father held me up proudly before the stone lions.

‘My lions have tongues that definitively exist — unlike the lions on the Chain Bridge in Budapest. They’ll be seeing my lions’ tongues for miles around! Just look at them!’ the Count roared as he held me aloft before the curled manes of those sandstone felines. To be honest, I don’t remember this but the anecdote was recounted with such regularity in the following years that it has almost become a genuine memory.

Certain smells awaken glimmerings of the chateau at Villány in my mind. The sharp, rich tang of fermenting wine transports me to the time when Anna gave me an illicit sip: I can still see her dimpled fingers wrapped around the glass. The cool dampness of mould compels me to recall the wooden barrels in the wine cellars. The baked warmth of the hard earth makes me see those dry vineyards tapering off into the horizon. And the delicious whisk of a breeze sends me back to the moments when I would stand in the middle of the bridge, watch the water ripple underneath and feel the airy draught against my cheeks. Ah yes, I’m never far from those sensations.

My sister told me that we used to play a lot of games around the bridge’s building site. Her favourite pastime was a game that she had invented after reading Molnár’s The Paul Street Boys. This was a classic Hungarian children’s story about a group of boys who engage in a fierce battle with a nasty gang to claim ownership of some derelict but treasured land in the slums of Budapest. I’m not sure that our massive garden in Villány, with its circular ponds and cherub-infested fountain, topiary hedges and lichened griffins, replicated those conditions but apparently Anna managed to persuade the servants’ children and myself that it did.

According to my sister, we all had a marvellous time throwing sand and bricks at each other and hiding behind wheelbarrows until I received a vicious crack on the head.  Anna had to scoop me up in her arms and run with me into the drawing room where my mother was reading. Mama said there was so much blood spurting out of my head that Anna’s white frock turned red. Because there was no hospital nearby, they had to take me to a gypsy healer who waved some leaves over my battered skull and curtailed the bleeding.

My only memory of the event is of a warm stickiness sprouting out of my scalp and wondering whether cocoa and other hot beverages were extracted from people’s heads. Push back my hair and you can still see the long, white scar.

* * *

Yes, yes, yes: there are black and white photos from this time. There’s my father, the Count, standing in his hunting gear and deerstalker hat with his Purdey shotgun in front of the fat-tongued lions. There’s my mother, sitting under a parasol in her white, floral dress, reading Pride and Prejudice and looking like the fair English maiden that she was before we moved to Budapest. There’s me, as a baby, wearing a long, cotton dress with frilly edges and long sleeves being carried by my mother in the road leading to the Archduke Frederick’s farm – his wine cellars and hunting grounds were close to us and we used to visit them regularly. What big round eyes I have! But you can certainly see in my pale, agitated face the first inklings of the illnesses that would plague me for the rest of my life.

The Chain Bridge, Budapest

* * *

And there’s Anna. Doesn’t she look naughty with her dark, inquiring eyes, her cheeky grin, her thick black hair, and her high, Pongrácz cheekbones, all dolled up in that ridiculous harlequin’s costume and hat? She always loved dressing up, even in the days when she became a hardened communist.

And here we all are together in our stately horse-drawn carriage, setting off for Mass in our Sunday best: my father is dressed in sober black with a top hat and my mother entirely obscured by the huge, netted hat she’s decided to model. And there we are behind them: me, in an absolutely tiny shirt and tie, and Anna looking distinctly grumpy in a Transylvanian frock. She never liked acting the role of a Magyar. But my goodness, she looks so slim and young!

* * *

It’s a shame that I remember so little from that time, but I was only five years old when my sister and I left Villány. My memory only revives when we moved to Budapest. And those first days and weeks I can recollect so vividly that I can shut my eyes and replay them with the same ease that a projectionist can pop a film into his whirring machine and shine it in Technicolor onto the darkened cinema screen.

Budapest 1945

Anna ran out of the apartment. If she had been speaking sense, I probably would not have followed her and tended to the unconscious Miss Virág. But my sister wasn’t herself at all: there was a desperate light of optimism in her eyes, the kind of optimism that quickly dwindles into suicidal depression once it has been disappointed. I felt that she was in more danger than my tutor.

I pursued her onto Andrássy where she slackened her pace, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to keep up. I called out to her to come back but she ignored me and, thus, I trailed after her through the nightmarish wreckage of Budapest all the way down Attila József utca right down to the river.

The relatively intact state of my apartment had been an exceptionally misleading indication about the general condition of our capital city. How can I begin to describe its ruinous condition? The streets were strewn with overturned tanks, burnt-out trams and cars; flames still lapped at the ruins of great apartment blocks and grey smoke drifted around the tree-tops. Great swathes of the apartments on the ring road around Deak Ter had been obliterated, leaving only charred timbers, pulverized bricks, broken tiles and smashed glass, and the dead bodies of dogs and cats. The corpses of Germans, Hungarians and Russians littered the gutters. Although most of the bodies were of uniformed soldiers, I did come across one unfortunate Swabian flower vendor who was still holding out a sprig of heather and lavender in her hand as if she was just about to sell the pitiful herbs. Her throat had been slashed and the blood had dried around the deep wound like old egg yolk.

After that I determined that I wouldn’t look closely at anything lying on the frozen ground unless I absolutely had to. However, despite this pledge to myself, I couldn’t help discerning that much of the snow was streaked with bright, red blood and many of the icy puddles were the colour of English strawberries. Her determination to reach her destination seemed to make her oblivious of the carnage around her; she hopped over bodies, skipped across gutters full of bloody pulp and twisted metal, and ducked around the abandoned trams and tanks.

As we approached the Danube, we heard feet tramping through the snow and the howling screech of a Russian officer. I swivelled round and saw that a large infantry division was marching in our wake: the sound of a drum reverberated through the eerily quiet, snow-thrilled air.

I managed to catch up with Anna on the fragmented remains of the Corso. She had come to a dead stop in front of what used to be the Carlton hotel and was staring at the Danube. The snow mocked us as it fell so peacefully onto the icy water.

“Ahhh!” Anna screamed.

I rushed up to her and took her arm by the railings of the promenade, which were now as looped and bowed as shoe laces. Then I embraced her, and she buried her face in the crook of my shoulder. As I held her, I could see what had happened to this once beautiful part of Budapest: every bridge had been blown up and all the great hotels on the Corso were simply piles of rubble with the occasional glint of a chandelier or hint of red carpet poking through the devastation.

I remember thinking it was a good thing that my father was dead: he couldn’t have borne the vision of the Chain Bridge’s lions with their manes blasted away and the middle of the bridge sliding into the unforgiving currents of the Danube. Nor could he have endured to see the great Buda castle’s dome stripped of its green copper finery and its inner scaffolding exposed to the elements. Most of all, the smell of burnt flesh and rubber and wood, and the crackle of simmering fires eating up the great hotels of the Corso would have told the Count that everything civilised about Hungary had been lost, irretrievably cast to oblivion. And yet, I couldn’t help feeling that my country deserved it. Quite frankly, I didn’t care that the Chain Bridge was totally destroyed.

You can find a PDF of these extracts here:

Biography

Francis Gilbert found the process of working with the other members of Blue Door Press on Snow on the Danube an enriching and enlightening process. He began the novel in the late 1990s, doing much research and rewriting the novel a great many times. It was not until he worked with Blue Door Press in 2016 that the narrative finally took a compelling and original shape. You can read about this process in his blog here: https://bluedoorpress.co.uk/2019/03/12/the-importance-of-patience-why-it-took-21-years-to-publish-snow-on-the-danube/

The Danube, the Chain Bridge and Budapest

BDP’s Who Do You Love is now an audiobook! Free copies to give away!

Blue Door Press is delighted to announce that the audiobook version of Who Do You Love (BDP 2017) is now available for sale on Audible, Amazon and iTunes.

It was quite a journey working with the voice artist and actor Christopher James on the novel during this lockdown period.

He and I talked quite intensely about the novel via email as he grappled with the novel’s difficult subject matter and extended narrative. I believe he’s done a magnificent job. I know I am biased, but I found the process of listening to the novel again gripping!

For those of you who are not authors: it can be quite painful listening to your own words read back to you again by someone else, particularly if the reader isn’t that great! But Chris is a wonderful interpreter, and after the initial feelings of ‘uh-oh, is this novel any good?’ I found my self immersed in the story in a way I hadn’t been before. I know I had written it, but I finished the book over three years ago now, and I feel I have moved on as a writer, and I wondered if the narrative would ‘stand up’.

For me, it triumphantly did, thanks in part to Chris, who managed to give the narrator of the novel, Nick, an energetic but melancholic aspect and read the dialogue really brilliantly. The other characters of the novel really came alive for me. These are my highlights and thoughts on these characters.

For those of you who are not familiar with the story, this is an amplified version of its blurb, which I’m quoting now so that you understand my comments about Chris’s interpretations of the characters which follow.

Nick is cracking up. In his mid-forties, he has just been sacked as an arts journalist, with little prospect of getting such a well-paid, prestigious job again. Even more worrying for him is his suspicion that his wife, Hadley, a Deputy Head at a school, is having an affair with a much more successful person: does she want to trade in Nick for a better model? His marriage problems are now exacerbated by money worries and concerns about the future for his nine-year old son, Jack.

But most devastating of all is the fact that he learns that a former lover, Ellida, has died.

Unable to find a new job, Nick miserably fails, despite his best attempts, to be pro-active and positive, and retreats into memories of the past. He remembers the romantic times he had with Ellida in the 1980s and 1990s; times when, as a student, he wrote and directed a crazy mime play which was performed in Sussex woodland on the summer solstice; the wild parties and alcoholic picnics by the sea; and, most poignantly for Nick, an impossibly romantic holiday on the Northumbrian coast at his grandparents’ picturesque farmhouse. But Ellida and his grandparents are now dead. Can Nick ever recover his lost happiness? This is his search in the present. He meets up with Ellida’s former husband, an eccentric music composer, Arnholm. and his daughter Isolde; her friends and seeks recover ‘lost time’ by visiting the places of their past loves. Sometimes he travels with his young son, Jack, and at others, he goes alone.

The novel is, above all, an evocation of the character of Ellida, who, for Nick, was the most magnetic person he ever met.

Given this basic plot outline, hopefully you can understand my responses to Chris’s reading of the various characters without having read the book:

Ellida. She is the heart of the novel; the passionate, destructive Norwegian lover of Nick. Chris succeeds because he manages to give her a plausible Norwegian accent – or a sense of her foreignness to Nick – and a humanity, a sanity even. Ellida does some crazy things in the novel – demanding sex in wild locations, getting drunk in strange ways, swimming in dangerous waters both literal and metaphorical – but she is, for me at least, clear-headed much of the time, damaged but perceptive of herself and the world. Chris’s reading provides this strange mix of wildness and clarity very well in his reading.

Hadley. She is the American teacher-wife of Nick, and is an ordered, thoughtful person, caring and a good mother. Possibly one of the issues about her is that she could be seen as strangely unsympathetic because she is so ‘together’. I felt that Chris’s reading made her a moving character; he gave her dialogue a moving quality, a vulnerability which I hadn’t heard before.

Arnholm. He is the former husband of Ellida, a selfish, narcissistic composer who is Norwegian/Catalan. I felt that Chris captures his accent very well, and this works excellently in the dialogue scenes when Arnholm is speaking to both Nick and Ellida, as their contrasting voices give the audio book the quality of a play at this point. For me, Chris really inhabited Arnholm.

Isolde or Izzy. She is the troubled, wayward, damaged daughter of Ellida who Nick connects with many years after his affair with Ellida has ended. Chris catches her accent – which is British – nicely, and the scenes at the end of the novel with Izzy and Nick have an emotional quality. I felt he captured Izzy’s sadness. I was very moved by his reading of the last scene.

Jack. He is Nick and Hadley’s young son, upset by the difficulties in his parents’ marriage. Chris gives him a suitably plausible boy’s voice; again, a really tricky thing to do, but he pulls it off, and the scenes where Nick and Jack talk about life, relationships and everything are believable and funny.

Mercy. She is a Nigerian-English academic who plays an important but small role in the novel. This was a challenge, but I felt that Chris conveyed her humanity without descending into stereotype.

Other characters: Ellida’s parents, Nick’s grandparents. These were smaller roles, but once again because Chris read the novel so carefully before reading it aloud, he really ‘got’ them, the nuance and importance of them in the narrative.

So, what am I saying here? Listen to the novel if you want! I felt immersed in the world of Nick as I listened to Chris read the book: I wanted to know Who Did He Love?!

There could be many other interpretations of the book; it could be read in a more male way, with more bravado, possibly at a greater pace, or it could be read more slowly, more lugubriously. I think the novel is open to both interpretations, and a lot of others! But I liked Chris’s mix of keeping the pace up and yet emphasising the emotional side of the narrative.

Below, you can listen to a section in the middle of the novel where Nick has returned from Brighton to his wife, Hadley, and child, Jack, having met his lover’s grown-up daughter Isolde, who has got drunk with him and then tried to go to bed with him. Nick has rebuffed her advances but is shaken and lies to his wife about seeing Isolde, saying he was seeing his friend George instead.

If you’d like to review the novel and thus acquire a free audio download of it, please email me: sir@francisgilbert.c.uk There are only a limited number of free copies so they will be issued on the basis on your willingness to offer a review (if only a brief one) and on a first come, first served basis.

The audiobook version of Who Do You Love (BDP 2017) is now available for sale on Audible, Amazon and iTunes.

What happened to the New Man?

As I’ve pointed out in previous blogs, the process of listening to the audiobook of Who Do You Love has been enriching for me, making me return to the text some years after writing it.

Christopher James  reads the book more slowly than me, taking his time, giving the narrator’s voice a melancholic, deadpan quality. This works well. As a listener you are given the room to feel the words. It’s made me realise that the book is very pictorial, or at least it has that quality for me. I feel like I am inhabiting the rooms, the streets, the countryside, the coast lines, the different eras of the novel as I listen.

One of things that really struck me was the way the different time zones encountered so far in the novel, 1987 and 2013, act as counter-points. I’ve been watching the Netflix sci-fi horror drama Dark which is, in part, about certain people time-travelling between 2019 and 1986: two eras I’m very familiar with! The Gothic sci-fi is completely different from my realist novel in so many ways, but one thing I’ve felt they’ve shared is that sense of ‘the uncanny’. I suppose this is because Nick is, in so many ways, my alter ego; and it’s a bit like standing outside myself as I listen to the novel being read by someone else. As the great literary theorist Stuart Hall said, ‘This experience of, as it were, experiencing oneself as both subject and object, of encountering oneself from the outside, as another – an other – sort of person next door, is uncanny’.

In Who Do You Love, in 2013, Nick is sacked (from his job) as an Arts Editor at a London listings magazine and can’t find another job; when he learns that a former girlfriend, Ellida, has died, he finds himself remembering his times with her in 1987. In his  first ‘remembrance’ (involve him) he recalls how he directed a strange mime play about the 1986 hurricane in a half-destroyed wood  on the summer solstice in June 1987. I found Chris’s reading of this section particularly effective because he evokes the different accents of the main characters so well: the emphatic tones of Nick’s friend George, the cheeky-clever voice of Luke, Nick’s other best friend, the Catalan accent of Arnholm, Ellida’s husband – done particularly well I think – and, of course, Ellida herself. Chris manages to make the relationship between Ellida and Nick seem very tender.

Another thing that struck me was just how much it is about different phases of male crisis: at the onset of forming adult relationships in late teens/early twenties, and at the classic ‘mid-life’ point where everything comes into question in your forties. The section where Nick describes the Men’s Group really brought memories back to me of the late 1980s where there was a real focus upon the idea of the ‘new man’; the emotionally literate, caring, responsible man who listened to women. The talk, as I remember it, was all very ‘gendered’. There was both explicitly and implicitly then the assumption that men and women were fundamentally different in so many ways; biologically, neurologically, genetically and psychologically. The idea of the ‘new man’ was that he would be attuned to these differences, not mocking of them, but understanding. But looking back, I believe it brought into play an ‘essentialist’ narrative – that men and women are essentially separate beings – in a way which is strikingly in contrast to essentialist thinking about gender now. Gender determinists now, such as the likes of Jordan Peterson and horrific Incel, are, I would say, virulently, violently misogynistic. The new man movement in contrast trod softly around these issues, and, at its best, questioned such essentialist assumptions, but I think, as the following extract shows, often fell back on tired stereotypes of ‘men being men’ and ‘girls being girls’; I use the word ‘girls’ advisedly here because the word frequently was used to describe women in a patronising way by ‘new men’. Listening to the section about the Men’s group felt quite an accurate account of what I encountered back then.

Here’s the section 8th July 1987:

I showed a draft of this article to the BDP team, who all commented on it in their habitual useful way. Barbara Bleiman made this perceptive point: ‘ Perhaps there are possible implications for all writers, at a drafting stage, when they hear the words they have written being uttered in someone else’s voice? Maybe it’s about realising the extent to which the reader always brings their own interpretation and that a different actor might have brought something quite different to it, illuminating it for you again in other ways.’

Yes, I would agree with this, and it makes think I must get other people to read my work out aloud during the drafting stage in future. It’s not something I’ve done, but I think it’s clearly a valuable exercise and could really help me improve my writing.

Listen to the first 15 mins of Who Do You Love for free here!

I’m writing this blog post on the summer solstice, 20th June 2020, which is an important date in my novel Who Do You Love. In fact, I like to think the events on the summer solstice June 1988 in a Sussex wood, devastated by the hurricane of October 1987, are pivotal in the novel. They are loosely based on real events that happened to me, when I directed and produced a mime play, performed at midnight at that time.

In the novel, the protagonist, Nick is rescued from a bad mushroom trip by Ellida, the passionate Norwegian woman who becomes the love of Nick’s life.

A tree spirit from the Song of the Falling Trees, June 1987, standing next to an uprooted tree in a wood in the Sussex Downs, fictionalised in Who Do You Love

I’ve been thinking a lot about Who Do You Love recently because I’m working with actor and voice artist, Christopher James, on an audiobook version of the book. He’s now produced the first fifteen minutes for me, which you can find here:

Audiobook version of ‘Who Do You Love’ to be publish soon on Audible!

I hope you’ll agree that he’s read it magnificently! I felt his accent and approach was just right for the narrator Nick: energetic but mournful, which is a difficult combination to get. There’s a sadness, as I see it, in Nick’s voice which he captures well. He also reads the book reasonably slowly and clearly, while maintaining a sense of pace, again this is tricky: you can’t read the novel too fast because the images, the descriptions and the dialogue can be marginalised in a fast reading.

Listening to it was immersive for me. I was actually more present with the book than when I wrote much of it. This said, writing the first draft of it was an enveloping experience: I virtually free-wrote a draft of 120,000 words over the space of six-eight months! I had just started my PhD in Creative Writing with Blake Morrison in 2009-2010; I had got my place on this prestigious programme by proposing another entirely different book, but changed tack when I learnt about the death of a friend. Blake was great because he allowed me to change direction and recognised how I wrote. He let me ‘splurge’ away!

The process of editing and pruning and changing after that was not as hypnotic. I had to have a very critical eye while re-reading what I had written. I must confess editing is not my strongest suit. I can, at times, take the foolish road of publish and be damned, particularly with some of my blogging and journalism!

I have never done this with my fiction, but the temptation is still there. Listening during lockdown to the audio book, I made entry into Nick’s world without that wincing editor’s eye inside my head. This was a rare treat for me. I felt immersed back in the fiction: I was there as Nick gets the news he’s been sacked; I felt for him as he listens to his wife, the New Yorker, Hadley, give him lots of sensible but hard-to-hear advice; and I felt his pain again! This was, I felt, because Chris captured his pain in his voice.

I particularly enjoyed the reading of the second chapter, which is Nick’s memory of the hurricane of October 1987. Chris captures the different voices and accents of the students in this scene beautifully: the dominant, angry George, and the cheeky, clever Luke. This worked well I thought; the reading never strays into parodic student talk in a way some people have complained happens when you read it straight off the page. That’s what a good actor can do: bring a sense of gravity to things that might look a little silly on the page. 

Making an audio book out of my novel, Who Do You Love

I’m very excited to be working on an audio book version of Who Do You Love, my novel which I published with Blue Door Press in 2017.

I have investigated ways of doing this over the years, having a go at reading myself. I found that although I can be an expressive reader — some would say too expressive! — I don’t have the skills of a properly trained actor and audio book reader. To be a great reader of audio, you have to have a lot of different skills: you’ve got to interpret a story meaningfully and emotionally, you’ve got to read it in a dramatic but not too dramatic fashion, you’ve got to be able to voice the different characters properly, and you’ve got to give it all drive and energy. I think I have found just the person after quite a bit of searching, in the voice of the wonderful actor and audiobook reader Christopher James. I found him through ACX, the audio partner it seems of Amazon’s KDP. The process for me was great because it was so simple. I posted my book for auditions and was surprised to find quite a few auditions up within a matter of two days. I listened to them, and picked Christopher as the most suitable for the book. All of them were good, but it was the accent and the nuanced reading that I was looking for, which I really found in Christopher. Here’s his audition tape:

My soundcloud file of Christopher James’ Audition

Reading Who Do You Love well is really tricky. Not least because the novel explores the emotional experience of a contemporary male, something not frequently done. There are not a lot of novels like this around, with the possible exception of David Nicholls, the author of One Day and Us. Christopher and I have talked about this because it affects the way the novel should be read: it can’t be too deadpan, nor too over-the-top in terms of sounding emotional. The other tricky thing in the novel is the range of accents: the Norwegian lilt of Ellida, the heroine, the refined New York accent of Hadley, the Spanish accent of Arnholm, Jack’s older child voice, and the narrator’s own southern English accent, which is neither posh, nor particularly cockney/local. I felt Christopher captured all of them really well. I was delighted by the way the novel suddenly came alive for me again. Anyway, we are just at the beginning of the process; he’s reading the novel just as I write, and will be recording the whole book quite soon. I hope to keep you updated about how it’s going.

A European Evening at Our Latest Launch

 

The latest titles from Blue Door Press had a warm send-off at The Word Bookshop, New Cross, London, on 28 March: Jane Kirwan’s Czech themed Goose Woman and Francis Gilbert’s exploration of Hungarian history, Snow on The Danube.

After rich readings there followed a Q & A with Francis explaining why it took him 21 years to complete the novel, and Jane speaking of the connections she finds between  Slabce, the village in Czech where she spends half the year, and the village in Ireland, home of her grandmother.

For those who couldn’t make the launch, here’s a flavour …

 

 

The importance of patience: why it took 21 years to publish Snow on the Danube

9781916475403

I started writing Snow on the Danube in 1998, and I’m about to publish it 21 years later!

You can find details (including free tickets) about its launch here.

It was quite unlike anything I’d written before because it was not autobiographical at all, which most of my other work had been.

I became fascinated by Hungary because of my interest in the music of Franz Liszt and Béla Bartók; two very contrasting Hungarian composers. Liszt was the romantic showman, a dazzling virtuoso, and the composer of magnificent piano concertos that I fell in love with when I was a teenager. Bartók was, in many ways, the opposite to Liszt: an experimental composer who did very different things with rhythm and tonality. His Concerto for Orchestra is one of my favourite pieces of music. Reading about his troubled relationship with Hungary and his desperately sad and traumatic exile during the Second World War got me investigating the Magyar people’s history. I had also always loved Hungarian-born George Szirtes’s poetry; one of his early collections of poetry, Short Wave, greatly moved and excited me; I loved his elliptical Kafkaesque poetic narratives.

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Clarissa Upchurch brilliant art adorns George Szirtes’ poetry

In 1998, I took the brave but foolhardy plunge to write a novel about Hungary. I visited the country a few times, following up on contacts provided by me by my New York in-laws, who knew quite a few Hungarian emigres. I had also met George Szirtes by then, and he helped me connect with some people in Budapest, including a wonderful editor of a Hungarian literary magazine. I spoke to them, and toured around Budapest, and bought the books translated into English. The internet had not become the great repository of information that it is now, and so the literature I found in Hungary had a magical, rare quality to me. I watched Hungarian films, and generally immersed myself in as much English-language based Hungarian material as I could.

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Béla Lugosi’s interpretation of ‘Dracula’

I rediscovered Béla Lugosi’s interpretation of Dracula after watching Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994). Philip Glass wrote a new score for the film which was issued with the film in 1999. I felt drawn to the voice of a ‘count’ who was both a little similar to Count Dracula but in many ways very different: a coward, a hypochondriac, fussy, musical, someone who only adored himself and his sister. A voice emerged, and I found myself writing about the intense love between my protagonist Count Zoltán Pongrácz and his sister, Anna. I was reading Proust at the time, and used a sort of quasi Proustian voice for him in the sense that it was deliberately fussy, nostalgic, full of yearning.

History shaped Zoltán’s fate; he was born on the day of the Treaty of Trianon (1920), the disastrous treaty that robbed Hungary of its lands made in France after the First World War. In many ways, Zoltán’s fate was sealed by this denuded world; he was the last in a long line of Counts, doomed live on after his family lost everything.

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The destruction of Budapest’s chain bridge during the WWII.

Zoltan’s story, perhaps oddly, came relatively easily for me; I had completed a draft of it by 2001. But then I found it very difficult to give his historical story, set as it is before and during the Second World War, a ‘frame’: a contemporary story which explained why someone might want to discover his lost narrative. I felt the story needed such a frame; a reason as to why the reader might want to connect with the story, a British connection.

I wrote many contemporary ‘frames’ over the years, seeking to give Zoltán’s voice a suitable justification. Zoltan’s story was of interest to people. George Szirtes, as editor of an anthology of fiction and poetry, First Writing, published a section of it in 2001; an eminent agent liked the novel; other discerning readers such as a literary editor, now the editor of the New Statesman, Jason Cowley, and an audiobook publisher, Nicolas Soames, said nice things.

Zoltán was such a powerful character for me that I used him in my first published novel, The Last Day of Term (Shortbooks: 2011; new edition Blue Door Press: 2019). He was the great uncle of my main protagonist Béla Pongrácz, a disaffected teenager living in Bethnal Green and causing mayhem at the academy he had been expelled from. But Zoltán’s story remained hidden from Béla and all those around him; he was just a sad old man living in a down-at-heel council flat, listening to Radio 3, his head forever obsessing about the past.

It took the great editors at Blue Door Press to spot what the novel needed; Pam Johnson and Jane Kirwan read a draft and said they liked Zoltán’s story, but felt that the modern ‘frame’ for the story needed a lot of work. Pam suggested using the device of Béla finding Zoltán’s manuscript after the count died, and this, finally, was the trope that we all felt really worked. The idea of Béla thinking that he’d been left some money only to find a manuscript intrigued me; I saw the potential of Béla finding redemption in reading about his family’s past; the healing power of words, something that interests me a lot.

So, I’ve had to be patient. I’ve learnt to be patient. It’s made me also realise that fiction has a staying power which is quite unusual. Unlike journalism which ages very quickly, stories can linger, stay alive, stay fresh. You can’t easily pick up a piece of journalism you wrote many years ago, and revivify it, but with fiction this can be possible if there are still connections in it with the present day. I’d venture to say that the novel’s focus upon the destructive effects of fascism and anti-semitism have made it more relevant than when I started writing it in the more innocent era of the 1990s, pre-9/11, pre-Brexit, pre-Trump, and pre-the scary reprisal of Hungarian fascism which Victor Orbán’s terrible government seem intent upon resurrecting.

Summer Solstice Readings for National Writing Day at the Word Bookshop, New Cross

I had a very enjoyable day at Goldsmiths on the summer solstice to celebrate National Writing Day. The summer solstice is:

“the time at which the sun is at its northernmost point in the sky(southernmost point in the South hemisphere), appearing at noon at its highest altitude above the horizon.”

It is midsummer; the heart of this glorious season, a time when Vikings used to resolve legal disputes, when the sun would align with the Wyoming’s Bighorn medicine wheel and magnificent Aztec architecture, and the Ancient Chinese would honour the earth which embodied the feminine force known as yin. It’s no surprise then that storytellers, poets and writers have been drawn by its power. In 1987, myself and a group of students from Sussex university put on a play on the summer solstice to honour the trees that fell in the 1986 hurricane. I wrote a fictionalised account of this night in my novel, Who Do You Love, and this prompted me to see if I could celebrate the solstice again. The fact that it was also National Writing Day meant that there were many people interested in getting involved. The following things happened:

First, Goldsmiths English PGCE students hosted a writing workshop in the Goldsmiths allotment. You can find the excellent worksheet they produced on Scribd here.

 

English PGCE students in Goldsmiths allotment, June 21st 2017
English PGCE students in Goldsmiths allotment, June 21st 2017

Second, although she could not be at Goldsmiths, Ursula Troche wrote these two poems to celebrate National Writing Day and the solstice.

 

Third, myself and a number of other writers, including Ian McAuley, Helen Bailey, Peter Daniels, Julie Hutchinson and Magda Knight read at the Word Bookshop. Here are the videos of their readings. They are audible, but the noise in New Cross can be heard at times; it was very hot and we had to leave the bookshop door open!

5 Ingredients for a Great Book Launch

ONE: Find a supportive publisher.

Blue Door Press have been wonderful to be part of because there is such a collaborative spirit. Pamela Johnson, one of the founders of the press, gave me a brief introduction (as you can see on the video) and along with Jane Kirwan & Daphne Astor have been real champions of my work. Who Do You Love is a personal novel, and in some ways quite challenging to write and publish, and I definitely could not have done it without BDP’s unstinting support. BDP has believed in my writing and given me a writerly confidence I haven’t had before.

TWO: Find a supportive bookshop.

The Brick Lane Bookshop were also very helpful; being a local author, they took extra care with things, keeping track of the people invited and offering to sell the books as well as opening after hours on a Friday. The shop was a great venue; cosy but with just enough space to contain the hoards.

THREE: Invite friends and family who like you!

The launch was a great excuse to catch up with family and friends who I hadn’t seen in a while. It was brilliant to see so many smiling faces who were willing to buy my book!

FOUR: Make the speeches short, snappy and include some brief readings.

It’s important to have speeches at a launch, but they do need to be brief; people need time to chat and socialise.

FIVE: Be merry in the moment.

A book launch is a time for celebration so being positive is important; take a moment to enjoy the beauty of people coming together to buy and read your work.

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Melissa Benn, Fiona Millar, Francis Gilbert

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Ian McAuley who launched his novel London Stone with me on the night as well.

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FG with Ayesha Kyrou & Abdul Hanan

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With Sonia Lambert & Andrea Mason (fellow novelists)

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With my father, Peter Gilbert & Tim Hewitt

Who Do You Love by Francis Gilbert

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‘I enjoyed Who Do You Love a lot. It’s beautifully-written, very funny about sex and the excruciating confusion of being young and single then middle aged and trapped. I think you’ve captured something about a generation in a way that will touch a lot of readers…. Really, a terrific novel.” Amanda Craig, literary journalist, and author of A Vicious Circle and Hearts and Minds.

Nick is cracking up. In his mid-forties, he has just been sacked as an arts journalist, with little prospect of getting such a well-paid, prestigious job again. Even more worrying for him is his suspicion that his wife, a Deputy Head at a school, is having an affair with a much more successful person: does she want to trade in Nick for a better model?

But most devastating of all is the fact that he learns that a former lover, Ellida, has died. Unable to find a new job, Nick miserably fails, despite his best attempts, to be pro-active and positive, and retreats into memories of the past.

By turns comic, tragic and romantic, Who Do You Love is a stirring novel which explores the big issues of passion, death and grief; a fast-paced contemporary love story but also moving exploration of what it means to be alive today, which should appeal to fans of writers like David Nichols, Ann Tyler and Nick Hornby.