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

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. 

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!

Who Do You Love by Francis Gilbert

who_do_you_love_cover_for_kindle14-jan-2017

‘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.

Why I wrote my autobiographical novel ‘Who Do You Love’…

who_do_you_love_cover_for_kindle14-jan-2017

J. had died, and the news shocked me. Our relationship had been intense when I was at university, but we’d parted on bad terms. Learning of her death nearly twenty years later from a mutual friend made me feel desperately sad that I had not said goodbye.

At the time, I was working on an education book – I had successfully published several – but I was blocked after hearing this news. I fell into a writerly depression: what was the point?

I ruminated about our passionate but difficult affair in the late 1980s. It was still the last gasp of the analogue age – a decade before laptops, pre-digital cameras and smart phones – and I had no photographs, videos, Facebook status updates, only a set of dog-eared spiral notebooks in which I wrote my diary in my loopy italic handwriting. Digging out my notebooks from the attic jogged my memory, and I began writing a memoir about knowing J. all those years ago. My depression lifted a little but then returned when I felt that I was not communicating the energy, the joie-de-vivre of our time together.

Eventually I gave myself permission to start inventing, turning my own life into a story. It was only then that I found I was writing my way out of the gloom. A new character formed, Ellida (pronounced El-leada), a composite of people I have known and J. The situations that I described were heightened amalgamations of events in my own life. I recast my friends from university as characters, and conjured up a “real” time when I penned a mime play on the summer solstice on a wooded crest of the Sussex Downs, written in response to the terrible hurricane of October 1987. Hundreds of people flocked to see the play; it was both a moment of triumph and humiliation for me as I swallowed a lot of magic mushrooms and had a bad trip. In Who Do You Love, Ellida rescues Nick — the version of myself who appears in the narrative — in a way that echoes, but doesn’t duplicate, what happened in my own life; but Ellida makes the lanterns for the play in the novel, just as J. did in “real life”. There’s a mingling of the truth and fiction which I hope gives a sense of my feelings at the time.

Nick and Ellida visit his grandparents in Northumberland — just as J. and I visited my grandparents in Northumberland. Writing these sections of the novel was the most emotional of all writing experiences I’ve had. I found that writing about them and their dilapidated farmhouse in Northumberland and roaming that incredible wild landscape with its ruined castles and sand-duned coast with my lover was intensely cathartic.

The novel went through many versions as I tried to perfect it for publication. Pam Johnson of Blue Door Press read it in a late draft and was very helpful in suggesting some key motifs that might be threaded through the novel. She was concerned that the wife in the novel, Hadley, was not sympathetic enough; she suggested some ideas which really helped with building a more rounded character. She also pointed out to me the importance of Thomas Hardy’s “At Castle Boterel” in the novel, and showed me how I might emphasize this more clearly. Jane Kirwan pointed out that I needed to illustrate the grandmother’s formidable intelligence more subtly. Both Jane and Pam have been very supportive in helping me find a good cover for the book: working with Sam Sullivan at http://newingtondesign.com/ has been great. The latest cover idea is posted at the top of the article. Being part of Blue Door Press has been a revelation; I have worked with several publishers before, but never had this sense of working with kindred spirits. After 7 years of working on it, Who Do You Love is now ready for publication; it’s truly been a psychic journey for me, taking me through a whole gamut of feelings from despair to joy.

What Makes Blue Door Press Special

I would say that I am something of a veteran when it comes to attending book launches. I have seen the whole gamut: I have snuck into some “media celeb” book launches and seen the likes of Howard Marks, Chris Evans and Plan B. at various populous shing-dings; I’ve briefly clinked glasses with literary luminaries such as Martin Amis and Margaret Atwood in well-thronged, well-upholstered rooms; I’ve been more important at more low-key events when friends and colleagues have given readings and touted their work; and I’ve been largely nerve-wracked when launching some of my own books. I can still remember losing my book launch virginity in 2004, when I’m A Teacher, Get Me Out of Here was first published. That was very exciting because lots of people came along, attracted by the title and the publicity that the book enjoyed: it was serialised in The Observer and I appeared on quite a few TV and radio shows talking about it. I remember drinking too much wine at the launch and not knowing quite what to make of it all. I was even snogged by an admirer!

So, I have seen a few. Nevertheless, the launch of Blue Door Press and two new novels by Pamela Johnson and Jane Kirwan respectively, founders of the press, was very special to me. Unique even. At first, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. There was a very nice ambiance about the launch, which was in a chic venue in Seven Dials, Covent Garden; it really filled up as the evening wore on and even the heat of the day and all those bodies could not dampen people’s enthusiasm and joy, which was very palpable.

However, I have been to events which have had similarly positive vibes. No, it wasn’t quite that which made it so inimitable. It was only after the speeches that I began to realise what made the moment so singular. Then, it hit me like a novel falling on my head from a high shelf: this was the very first time I had felt that authors were really taking control of their own literary destinies. In all the other launches I’ve been to, there was always the sense that the authors needed to bow down before the publishers; tug their forelocks and doff their caps at the “big boys” such as Penguin/Random House etc, and express extreme gratitude at the smaller outfits. This sense of neediness for a publisher was even the case when I’ve been to events where self-published books have been presented; you always got the sense that actually the authors were hoping that one day a “proper” publisher might take them on.

Not so with Pam and Jane. They have done something different entirely in my view. They’ve set up a writers’ collective which has the rigour and high standards of a “traditional” mainstream publisher, but has the autonomy of a self-publishing outfit. It is worth watching the speeches to see and feel this point conveyed:

I spoke to one of the revellers at the launch who made these points in this video:

Above all, BDP is about publishing high quality, readable fiction. I’ve already written rave reviews of both books on Amazon: my review of PJ’s brilliant Taking in Water is here, and JK’s moving Don’t Mention Her is here. These are both writers who are at once literary and accessible. The two things don’t always go hand-in-hand. In a sense, Pam and Jane’s work are the press’s manifesto; they lay out the standards by which other work must be judged. Standards which many people feel are very high. Here are some fans talking about their work:

As you may have noticed at the end of the first video on this blog, I am delighted to have my new novel Who Do You Love accepted by BDP. Pam has proved a brilliant editor and has given me some work to do on the current manuscript, but all being well I hope to publish the novel in late January next year. More on my novel at another time I hope!

Francis Gilbert