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Given the choice to kiss, kill or steal famous artists, who would be your choices? Our writers decided to share theirs. First up, Loretta Barnard.
This is a tough assignment. TBS Editor-in-Chief Mathew Mackie has issued a challenge to name three writers who provoke three predominant responses – kiss, kill and steal.
The kiss response is intended to cover writers whose work you love. The kill response is for writers whose work is distinctly underwhelming, so dreadful that the fact that it was accepted for publication in the first place is gobsmackingly mystifying.
The steal response is the hardest, because there are some authors whose writing is so masterful it simply takes your breath away. Those are the writers whose work you might like to “steal” from. Not in a plagiaristic sense, I hasten to add; more in an achey, longing, wish-I-could-write-like-that kind of way.
One of the difficulties is narrowing the field, so my approach was to go with the first writers who came to mind when the challenge was tossed into the ring. If I were writing this next week, different writers would be under the mini-microscope because that’s how our minds work: with internal debating to determine our preferences. So here goes.
My chosen “kiss” author is Russian-American writer, Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) and the book for which he is most famous – Lolita (1955). Here’s an extract:
I think I had better describe her right away, to get it over with. The poor lady was in her middle thirties, she had a shiny forehead, plucked eyebrows and quite simple but not unattractive features of a type that may be defined as a weak solution of Marlene Dietrich. Patting her bronze-brown bun, she led me into the parlour and we talked for a minute … Her very wide-set sea-green eyes had a funny way of travelling all over you, carefully avoiding your own eyes. Her smile was but a quizzical jerk of one eyebrow; and uncoiling herself from the sofa as she talked, she kept making spasmodic dashes at three ashtrays and the near fender (where lay the brown core of an apple); whereupon she would sink back again, one leg folded under her. She was, obviously, one of those women whose polished words may reflect a book club or bridge club, or any other deadly conventionality, but never her soul; women who are completely devoid of humour; women utterly indifferent at heart to the dozen or so possible subjects of a parlour conversation, but very particular about the rules of such conversations, through the sunny cellophane of which not very appetising frustrations can be readily distinguished.
The protagonist, Humbert, describes Charlotte, the mother of Lolita, after whom he lusts even though she’s only 12 years old. The book is a fascinating study of a paedophile and murderer. One of the strengths of the writing is that while Humbert is totally repugnant, Nabokov also manages to arouse our sympathy for him because he’s quite brilliant: the story is dotted with loads of literary allusions and clever wordplay. We’re captivated by how he speaks. His language is intelligent, seductive and so very evocative. From his lively description, you can immediately visualise Charlotte, shallow, delusional and aspirational. Lolita is a post-modern classic.
My “kill” response is for John Creasey (1908-1973), the British crime writer whose 1942 book Inspector West Takes Charge is not only unbelievably wooden but a bit stupid. Sure it’s dated, but good writing can withstand the passage of time. As far as I’m concerned, the book has no redeeming qualities at all.
There are apparently a whole bunch of Inspector West books, so it’s quite possible I’m missing something, but if that’s the case, I seriously don’t care. To paraphrase my friend Deidre, “John Creasey and I have forever parted company”.
You be the judge. Here’s the opening of Inspector West Takes Charge:
The kitten rubbed against Roger West’s legs in the darkness, making him jump and switch on his torch. In the light two large eyes glowed. Then it stretched and disappeared. …
‘Hallo, darling,’ he said. ‘Not in bed?’
‘Just as well,’ said ‘darling’. ‘What have you been up to?’
Roger stood up gingerly.
‘I think I’ve brought you a present,’ he said.
‘So I should think. It’s a quarter to one. Where is it?’
‘That’s what I’m wondering,’ sighed Roger, peering about the semi-darkness. ‘What’s that behind you?’
His wife refused to look behind her.
‘I knew you had all the other faults but I thought you could hold your beer,’ she said. ‘Stop joking.’ Then suddenly she swung round. ‘What’s that? Something touched my leg, I know it did!’ …
A plaintive miaow followed …
‘Sweetheart, did I tell you that you have the most adorable nose?’
‘Did I tell ever tell you that you have the most deplorable nerve?’
Janet looked round at the sound of another miaow, ‘I wouldn’t mind a cup of tea,’ she admitted.
Oh please. Just close the book and get on with your life.
Because non-fiction is what I write, I felt it behooved me to nominate one of the truly great biographers, British-born Hazel Rowley (1951-2011) as my “steal” author. Her utterly riveting treatment of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre in Tête-à-Tête (2006) inspired me to read her 2010 biography Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage, even though I had pretty much zero interest in the Roosevelts.
I couldn’t put it down – it’s faultless. Franklin Roosevelt served four terms as President of the United States (dying in his fourth term) and Eleanor was an indefatigable campaigner for civil rights, equal pay for women etc. They were a formidable and unorthodox couple, and Rowley elucidates their private and public lives with candour, sensitivity and the most enviable facility with words. Consider this description of the 1905 wedding day of Franklin and Eleanor:
The six bridesmaids, dressed in cream taffeta, swept down the stairs from the third floor, crossed the hall at the rear of the drawing room, and made their way slowly up the aisle. Their sleeves were embroidered with silver rose, and in their hair – much to the dismay of Princess Alice, who led the procession – they wore three silver-tipped ostrich feathers, symbolising the Roosevelt crest. The six ushers followed, sporting tiepins with three little feathers made of diamonds – Franklin’s design.
And then … came the bride. Her white satin robe was draped with rose-point Brussels lace that her grandmother and mother had worn at their weddings. Her veil was caught with a diamond crescent that had belonged to her mother. The pearl-and-diamond collar at her neck was a gift from her future mother-in-law. The newspapers declared her ‘beautiful’, ‘regal’, ‘magnificent’.
Rowley paints a picture alright; it’s the depth of research, her dedicated attention to detail and her ability to become totally immersed in her subject that make her a remarkable biographer. If I could write half as well, I’d be a happy little Vegemite.
There, for what it’s worth, are the first picks for this challenge – kiss, kill, steal. Other writers will share their own choices in future weeks, so stay tuned.
In the meantime, think about who’d be on your lists…