Yesterday was the opening of this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival, and Charlotte Square was once more thronged with people, enjoying a rare bit of sun. The queue for ice cream was dealt with efficiently and though the grass was pretty sodden from Friday’s deluge, the trusty deckchairs were put to good use.
As ever, the photographers were kept busy behind the press yurt, trying to get the authors’ best side, and discussing what to do with this year’s background baize, which is a fetching green. One joked that it might be fun to get chromakey green as a background, to make it easy to insert the writers into the new Star Wars.
Continuing the green theme, my first event was in the early evening, The Female Gaze: Classics by Women Writers, featuring three guests of Lennie Goodings, publisher at Virago, whose Virago Modern Classics range was for decades instantly recognisable by its dark green livery, though they seem to have dropped that now. Maggie O’Farrell, Jackie Kay and Sarah Waters were there to pick their favourite Modern Classic and chat about it to a completely sold-out main theatre. Not an empty seat in the house, and all but about ten of audience were women, who gave the longest opening and closing ovations I’ve ever heard at the EIBF.
Goodings began with a brief overview of how Virago Modern Classics were first published by Carmen Calil in 1978, inspired by the Penguin Modern Classics, creating a library of women writers to challenge the perception that the canon began and ended with Jane Austen, The Brontës and Virginia Woolf: “She uncovered vast numbers of novels by women who had been hugely popular in their day but who had been forgotten.” Luckily, some of them lived to see themselves resurrected, and Margaret Drabble once noted that the Modern Classics had changed the face of literature.
Maggie O’Farrell’s choice was Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour, in which, she noted, a daughter serves her mother what I first heard as “rabid moose” (the air conditioning was very loud up the back) but was in fact “rabbit mousse”, which her mother would literally rather die than eat, “which must be the most disgusting food in literature”. A sort of dark comedy of manners in which the daughter of an aristocratic family recounts her buttoned-up youth, the story was apparently discovered by Peggy Ashcroft, who when visiting Keane in 1981 was rummaging in some drawers and found an old manuscript, read it overnight and told Keane she must publish it. It went on to be narrowly beaten to the Booker by Midnight’s Children.
“You can see from the very first paragraph that this is a writer at the top of her game. I hope that I can write half as well as her when I’m in my seventies. It’s a novel about the minor calibrations of society. The Anglo-Irish aristocracy was a peculiarly fragile world … dogs were fed chickens while servants ate laundry starch to stave off hunger. Nobody writes better about the shifting currents of what is not said, and the duality of text and subtext. I think it’s wonderful, if you haven’t read it, please do.”
Sarah Waters chose Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows. She began: “When I mention Rebecca West’s name I get blank looks but in 1947 Time magazine named her the world’s No 1 woman writer.” Otherwise known as Cicely Isabel Fairfield, she had a remarkable life and knew most of the big authors of the early 20th century, and an affair with HG Wells left her as a single mother, which at the time would have been very hard.
The Fountain Overflows is the story of ten years in the life of a “shabby-genteel” family, which was autobiographical in many ways, based on her own family and the area in which she grew up. Waters said it was “long and fantastically meandering”. “When I first read The Fountain Overflows, I didn’t like it. I was repelled by the snobbery. There is snobbery, but it’s not so much social as intellectual.” This is because the children in the book are “wildly imaginative” and for survival rely on “exclusive family rituals”. It’s the imagery that makes the book so compelling to Waters, she says, as “she makes you see the world in a way that is right but seems entirely new”. She gave a few examples, including describing the father as “a shabby Prospero exiled even from his own island”.
The father figure is, Waters says, nothing like West’s own father, nor the many men who let her down during her life. As the book was written when she was entering old age, “part of its dreamlike power is that it functions for her as a sort of consolatory fantasy of nostalgia”, but that makes it sound conservative and escapist, she said: “The Fountain Overflows has a real bleakness at its heart … what seems like a whimsical family memoir is one of the greatest fiction works of the 20th century.”
Jackie Kay’s selection was Zora Neale Hurston‘s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Kay read a prepared piece, which means I have copyright concerns about reproducing what I managed to catch of it here, but the line “She might be lying in the garden of heavenly rest, but she ain’t resting.” Should give you the gist. Neale boldly went where no African-American had gone before: the story of a an independent black woman who goes through “three men, a swamp and a rabid dog” to get to “consciousness”. However, the process of reading out her piece meant that Kay’s delivery was rather quick and somewhat flat compared to the others and this, coupled with the constant low noise from the back of the tent made it hard to parse many sentences. The exceptions were the moments when she illustrated Neale’s facility with language and her capturing of genuine voices in quotations. The book was, Kay said “magical realism before it was invented”.
Goodings then referred to Waters having said before that “all novels are always in conversation with each other”, to try to get the writers to relate their own books to their chosen favourites. This is where the event became a little frustrating, as the format had already fragmented the hour into short sections, and there was a sense that none of the three really wanted to pull the focus away from the books at hand to their own work. After all, they’re used to talking about their own work all the time. There was also very little in the way of interaction between the three guests, so that the format felt to me occasionally like a weird literary episode of Blind Date.
The audience questions provided a welcome relief after what seemed a slightly strained section. One perceptive question was about how the decline of independent bookshops could mean that happy accidents of browsing that bring people to imprints such as Virago Modern Classics just won’t happen online. This quickly led to impassioned pleas from the whole panel to support bookshops and shun a certain online retailer.
Kay, who had mentioned that one of the striking things about Their Eyes Were Watching God is that it doesn’t involve white people at all, was asked if there were any other books in a similar vein. “The absence of white people is entirely fresh and new … it’s very unusual … many black writers write as if to a white reader.” But she also later noted that the representation of black characters has improved over the years, but not by nearly as much as she’d have hoped. However, her last recommendation was to keep an eye on The Caine Prize to see the many African writers that we might not otherwise hear of.
In all, it was an interesting taster session, and certainly will have sold a ton of books for Little, Brown, but it was a little too fragmented to give much depth, and I wonder if a whole strand like this featuring fewer people on stage might have been a bit more satisfying. Still, the applause at the end was bordering on a standing ovation, so chalk it up as an early success for this year.