Thursday, October 14, 2010

Extravagant plots and luxurious prose...

So the festival begins!! We've had a great day so far, with the Bugged Launch at City Library entertaining a packed Beckett Room. This evening, Lionel Shriver; watch this space for reviews!

In the meantime, here's an interview with Barbara Trapido, ahead of our Dunker and Trapido event on Saturday 16th October at Waterstone's Deansgate, by freelance writer and friend of MLF Katie Popperwell.

Barbara Trapido is one of those rare novelists whose books I anticipate with the kind of slavering eagerness usually reserved for the Topshop sale and my grandmother’s almond cake. Zealous devotion is typical of Trapido’s fans, for whom her extravagant plots and luxurious prose elicit an indulgent pleasure seldom equalled.

Her latest, Sex and Stravinsky is an incredible tale of two families whose fates are linked by a beautiful mysterious stranger. Prodigious Australian Caroline tries to be the perfect wife and mother to her husband Josh and daughter Zoe, but her icy perfection is not enough to secure the love of her ghoulish mother from whose shadow she can’t escape. The family live in a converted bus; Josh teaches mime in Bristol and still dreams of his lost love Hattie, Zoe is obsessed by ballet books and dreams of dance lessons, only to find a kindred soul on a French exchange trip from which she may not return. Meanwhile, Hattie is writing girls ballet books from her house on the east coast of Africa, living with her overbearing husband Herman, her belligerent daughter Cat and the mysterious Jacques, who has travelled though Mozambique and Senegal to Milan and back to his origin, only to become the object of Cat’s uncontrollable obsession.

Trapido weaves a gossamer-light web of lost lovers, strange coincidences, missed opportunities and stolen identity that borders on the baroque, but out of this joyous cacophony arises clarity of form and purpose that throws into relief the joys and struggles of living in a global society.
Unlike most writers’ who employ complex plot archaeology, Trapido is not a planner. She is remarkably unselfconscious when discussing her writing process, and puts one in mind of a painter more than a writer as she talks about the organic emergence of themes in terms of light and colour and rhythm.

“I know it does seem to be that my plots have become more intricate and circular. I do everything very intuitively but when I read it now I see that there are these repeating and interwoven themes. I suppose there is some kind of spider’s web in the back of my head that I’m not aware of. I just rather instinctively weave themes into my work, and I always think it’s kind of like getting little presents, that perhaps drop into my lap on exactly the right day.”

“What happens is I write in a staring-into-the-dark way and after a while I start noticing things about the text, that there is some sort of story between the lines. At some point I start to questions things like; why is everything happening in threes? Or why is everyone always eating? Or why is everyone wearing green? Or why do I always describe that person’s feet? And then after a while I start to see the threads and understand what is happening."

Trapido’s last novel Frankie and Stankie was published in 2003 and tells the story of two sisters growing up in South Africa in the 1950s. It stood in stark contrast to her other novels, being linear, tightly focused and politically weighty in comparison. That book was cut from a different cloth, but now Trapido insists that she never meant it to be a novel at all.

“I called it a memoir, but my editor convinced me to publish it as an autobiographical novel. Because I’m sort of a wimp and I trust her I said OK but in fact it doesn’t read like a novel and that’s because the only rule I had was only to use things that had happened in real life. I just gave my sister and I different names and wrote it up in the third person, not because I was trying to hide the fact that it was my life story but because I thought people might find it boring.”

“What Frankie and Stankie did do for me is it brought back my South African history that I’d so long shut away. It had always come naturally to me to write as an English person which I thought I was, then when apartheid came to an end I suddenly had a sort of feeling that I was allowed to go and look at that again and shore it up a bit. And I think that has stayed with me and worked its way into Sex and Stravinsky.”

There are moment in Sex and Stravinsky that recall the political gravity present in Frankie and Stankie, but it also heralds a return to her trademark flamboyantly elaborate storytelling of the earlier novels like Brother of the More Famous Jack (1982) and Juggling (1994). Her ability to segue seamlessly between sharp political satire and ruminations on vogue dress patterns without drawing breath is very much in evidence.

“Some people think I’m sort of a show off but I don’t plan it. I’m just quite talky and one minute I’m discussing Yeats or the Bible or something and it all sort of weaves its way into the book and the next minute it’s something else."

“For example, I noticed when I was writing Juggling that in a way I was having a conversation with Shakespearean comedy. As usual the idea presented itself before I realised what I was doing, and then when I brought my front brain to bear I thought aha! It’s got to go with energy and symmetry and that’s the thing about comedy that leaves us so upbeat even though the stories can be about really gruesome things. You leave felling upbeat because of all the energy and balance and acrobatics, it’s like a tightrope walk really. Once I was conscious of that I thought there’s no reason why I can’t stylise the ends if I want to. I can be quite brave and pair people off, and play musical chairs, swop people around if I like. It makes some people cross and sneery because it’s not like everyday realism, but it’s a kind of theatrical convention and I think of the novel as a kind of theatre anyway.”

“Sex and Stravinsky grew out of a love of girls’ ballet books when I was little, and an obsession I had at the time about the ballet Russe, and also a book about Stravinsky I had just read, then I saw an exhibition of Picasso’s costumes for the Ballet Russe. I love the Pulcinella ballet and the music”

“All that stylising, and I suppose the new world theme, partly has to do with the preoccupation I had with how scary our lives are now that everything is so global and that people’s lives go on these very long and unpredictable trajectories. Writing Frankie and Stankie made me very aware of how very much that happens in new world societies, immigrant societies.”

“I did notice there was a lot about masks. You can’t express emotion with a mask so you have to do it with gesture, and that sort of stylising fascinated me, so I think I was in a way trying to stylise the book as a sort of echo of that. Also the mask has got something to do with confused identities, and that’s another thing about modern life, we’re all terribly culturally mixed and life is more exciting but it’s also more insecure."

Sex and Stravinsky should be exhausting, but Trapido’s expert elicitation of the reader’s desire to piece the puzzle together is worthy of master detective fiction and, like the most accomplished of ballet dancers, the effort is invisible. What’s more, her willingness to deliver a gratifying ending ensures that you close the book with the snug feeling delivered only by a satisfyingly ambitious, successful and ever so slightly ridiculous novel.

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