The Universe, and Everything in It: Patricia Duncker and Barbara Trapido
Waterstones, 16th October.
On the bus to Manchester I was reading Lavinia Greenlaw’s The Importance of Music to Girls. I was struck by the line “This kind of dancing was like gambling for matchsticks rather than money. It had no charge and I felt no flight or spring or joy...”. The description is of the country dancing she learned at school but it could be applied to so much of life. The concept of “gambling for matchsticks rather than money”, of merely going through the motions, is one that fits rather neatly to so much of contemporary literature which can so often be all intellectual workout with no pep or sparkle.
It is a description that could not be applied to Duncker and Trapido, who were introduced last week as two of Britain’s best, and then later, two of Britain’s most intriguing, women novelists. The definition is misleading because the majority of Britain’s best and most intriguing novelists currently are women. Nicola Barker, A.S. Byatt, Ali Smith, Shena Mackay, Sarah Salway, Elizabeth Baines, Hilary Mantel, and, of course, Patricia Duncker and Barbara Trapido, are just a few examples among many. When these novelists write they are certainly not playing with matchsticks, and when we buy their books we are not gambling with our money. (Blimey! That almost sounds clever, doesn’t it?)
When I first read through the Manchester Literature Festival program this was the first event I circled with red biro, marking it as a must-see. Its taking place on Saturday evening meant it became the perfect start to a holiday; the now annual week away from work so I can make the most of the Literature Festival. I was not disappointed. Especially as being a volunteer, writing this review, turning up early meant I got to chat briefly to Patricia Duncker before the reading. We talked about, amongst other things, writing, squid, and Sylvester Stalone’s portrayal of Judge Dredd.
A disparate mix, but not an unfitting one because both Duncker and Trapido write books that are chock full of things, knowledge. They are novelists who are both interesting and interested. Who write about the world instead of preaching to it.
Duncker read from The Strange Case of the Composer and his Judge. It is a dark tale of suicide cults, rationalism, faith, work, and ominous seeming movements in deep space. It is a novel of the universe, and everything in it. Duncker is excited by the concept of “one man’s faith being another man’s horror” and her novel investigates this idea.
Barbara Trapido read from Sex & Stravinsky, a whirling pirouette through several countries and a cacophony of family ties. It is a book of many and various characters; in the readings we got to see a young boy whose life is at the whims of South African politics and a wonderfully convincing teenage girl full of rage for her mother and her Portmerion tableware.
What was especially interesting for the audience was our learning by what incredibly different routes the two authors create their work. In the question and answer part of the event we learnt how Duncker starts with a very definite plotline and researches meticulously, going to watch people at their workplace, while Trapido can find herself at four in the morning stomping around her room acting out parts of her novel-in-progress and how she finds her characters “ways of trying yourself out in different roles.”
However different the methods of production though, the novels that are the end product are both equally brilliant and the readings from them fascinating, fun, and the perfect advert for both the writers' novels and the rest of the Manchester Literature Festival. As Duncker herself said while discussing her own reading habits “if I don’t want to turn the page, I don’t want to read the book.” This is a sentiment that was shared by all those gathered.
After an hour or so of great writing, in a room that I didn’t even know existed, tucked up behind the café on the top floor of Waterstone's, the audience applauded the writers one last time and headed toward the pile of books and the queue to get them signed.
Ten minutes later, I was back on Deansgate, amongst the sirens and the music that had gently drifted up to us as we listened to the readings, my bag two books heavier and my wallet slightly lighter, surrounded by the universe, and everything in it.