PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
There are a number of impressive Portuguese writers that English-speaking readers are likely to be familiar with: Camoes, Eca de Queiroz, Saramago and Pessoa. Beyond these four one might encounter readers who have read Portuguese-language Brazilian writers such as Machado de Assis and Jorge Amado, but it is very unlikely if the reader in question is not a Lusophone that they will have heard of Sophia de Mello Breynor Andresen. This is a great shame that I am delighted to see Young Dedalus remedying with a beautiful collection of her fairy tales, expertly translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson.
Andresen was born in Porto in 1919. Her patronymic comes from a Danish ancestor who settled in the city of her birth. From an affluent family, her father purchased the house and grounds of what is now the Porto Botanical Garden. The house and grounds proved influential on her work in which magical gardens abound. A very religious woman, she was nonetheless passionately opposed to the nominally Catholic authoritarian Salazar regime. After the 1974 Carnation Revolution she became a member of parliament for the Socialist Party. But it is of course her poetry and her story collections for children that have her assured her great reputation in Portugal.
It would be very difficult for me to get through this piece about Andresen without mentioning another author with a very similar name. And I think it is a mark of the delight and beauty of this story collection that it does not suffer comparison with the work of the famous Danish fairy-tale writer Hans Christian Andersen. Indeed, I would go as far as saying that the similarity of their names and work is the perfect way of catching hold of people’s attention and turning them onto her fairy tales.
The collection has eight stories, including her best-known longer pieces, ‘The Fairy Oriana’ and ‘The Forest’. I think one of the best ways to give a sense of Andresen’s unique talent will be to give a summary of one of my favourite stories in the collection: ‘The Bronze Boy’.
The setting is a country house and its extensive gardens. They are beautiful gardens with orchards, parkland, a hothouse, rose gardens and all sorts of flower beds. In one such flower bed are the gladioli. And it is a gladiola who is one of the central characters. Gladioli we are told are snobbish flowers. They look down their noses (or however flowers express condescension) at poppies and sunflowers, deem roses sentimental, adore tulips and despise the lily-of-the-valley.
The people of the house are having a party and the gardener is specifically instructed to pick gladioli. Our protagonist gladiola hears the beauty and fashionable status of his fellow flowers being extolled and looks forward to being picked and seeing this party. The lady of the house unfortunately has a change of heart and no more gladioli are picked. In the evening when the party is in progress, he visits an old oak that overlooks the windows of the house. He asks to watch from a high branch of the oak. As they look in through the windows and observe the people appearing on the balconies the oak talks to the gladioli about the beauty and fashion of the people. The gladiola is inspired to hold a party for the flowers.
The oak reminds him he must ask permission of the Bronze Boy first. During the day flowers cannot move and must stay in their position, but at night they can move about freely and talk. Night is also when the Bronze Boy comes to life and he is master of the garden at night. He is a statue who lives on a little island at the centre of a pond in a quiet verdant corner of the garden. The gladiola asks him if they can have a flower party. At first the Bronze Boy is unwilling, saying that if the flower had more sense and was less like the lady of the house, he would recognise the morning dew, the sunlight and the evening breezes, all these are a party. The only true parties are the simple pleasures of life. The Bronze Boy relents however when he sees just how downcast the gladiola has become. Delighted that they are going to have a party the gladiola organises a grand ball for flowers committee.
After much discussion and bickering over who is going to be on the committee and who is to be invited, the flowers and the Bronze Boy also pick the location for the ball, The Glade of Plane trees, a beautiful spot in the centre of the park surrounded by tall trees, with a small lake over at one end with a romantic pergola beside it. As Butterflies are dispatched with invitations, the flowers discuss who is to be in the orchestra, they settle on a on a motley orchestra of nightingales, cuckoos, woodpeckers, blackbirds, frogs and toads.
Having agreed location, guests and music all that is left is to decide decorations. It is decided to surround the lake with glow-worms and to put something in the empty stone vase. Much to everyone’s chagrin it is suggested to fill the vase with a decorative flower. The Bronze Boy suggests that if people put flowers in vases at their balls, the flowers should put a person in their vase for their ball. After dismissing the lady of the house as a candidate the Bronze Boy suggests putting Florinda in the vase. Florinda is the seven-year-old daughter of the house. She is adored by all of the flowers who think she is very like a flower herself, with her sunflower coloured hair, her violet eyes, her white camellia hands and her carnation red lips.
The following evening a nightingale sings at Florinda’s window and invites her to the flower’s ball. She is met by the Bronze Boy who explains that he and the flowers come to life at night. Taking her place in the vase she watches many beautiful flower-dances, in which the flowers combined to form myriad shapes and patterns. The gladiola is particularly concerned the tulip whom he admires so much has not yet arrived. When she eventually arrives, he is disappointed that she passes over him and dances with others instead. He is cheered up by the Bronze Boy and Florinda who both deem this the nicest party they have ever been to.
Suddenly all the flowers fall silent because another voice in the garden is heard, it is the voice of the cockerel. They all rush to be back in their places, soon leaving Florinda alone with the Bronze Boy. Florinda asks the Bronze Boy many questions trying to prolong her happiness, but she is so tired that she soon falls asleep. He carries her through her bedroom window and lays her on her bed. The next day Florinda can scarcely think about anything but the night-time ball. She tells her friends of what happened at school, but they only laugh at her for her dreaming. After school she goes to the Bronze Boy in the garden and talks to him, but he neither speaks nor moves. Disheartened she concludes that her friends are right and that it was simply a dream.
Many years have passed and Florinda has all but forgotten the flowers’ party. One evening her mother asks her to carry a basket of eggs to the cook’s house, who lives on the far side of the gardens. Crossing the gardens night soon falls. A beautiful moonlit May night. She remembers once again the flowers’ ball and how beautiful it was. The night itself, so beautiful and sweet smelling almost seems like a fantasy. She almost feels the flowers are coming to life again. She wanders to the little pool with the island on which the Bronze Boy stands during the day. He comes to life and asks her if she remembers him and the ball. She replies:
“’Of course, yes, now I remember everything. But I thought it was all a dream. I thought that everything I’d seen was too extraordinary to be true.’
‘Both the extraordinary and the fantastic are true. Because there are two countries, the night is one country and the day is another.’
‘What a marvellous place the world is!’ said Florinda.
And she gave her hand to the Bronze Boy and together they walked through the garden.”
It is a beautiful tale that manages to conjure memories of how vivid imagination can be for us when we are still very young. When we can imagine the flowers coming to life at night or the cutlery having parties in the kitchen when we have all gone to bed. There is also a gentle humour in such ideas as the flowers putting the little girl in the vase. It is a shame that the story is not better known as it would serve as great inspiration for musicians and animators. One can imagine a child reading the tale purely for its story full of magic and wonders while an adult will pick up a gracefully presented truth about the value of imagination, that it does not conflict with, but complements the more practical and realistic side of light, as the night complements the day.
In reading about Ancient Greece one of the more interesting classes of people to learn of, are Hetaira. They were a class of prostitute who were among the few cultured and educated women. They were not sought simply for sex, but for intellectual conversation and companionship. They were admitted to the elite male environment of the symposium (a sort of ancient Hellenic salon) and because they controlled their own finances, they often accrued great wealth. In essence that is the courtesan’s gambit, by the sacrifice of giving up traditional respectability and gaining a title of some infamy, a woman could have the chance of a freer more varied life.
Novels about courtesans or literary works featuring a courtesan plot line abound across the centuries and across cultures. The story of a woman from a poor background who takes advantage of her youth, charm and good looks, to infatuate admirers and take herself into a world of wealth, fashion and glamour, before ensuing crisis sees her relegated to obscurity or die in romantic tragedy, is a tale so familiar one can scarcely say how many books or films one has read or seen that feature the plot line.
Most of these works have been written by men and are shot through with the fascination of men for women who exist in a world that is so at odds with the received conventions of religious morality, marriage and family. This has naturally led to the courtesan being seen from the outside, from the perspective of the disapproving moralist or the fascinated admirer. Liane de Pougy is the ideal author to give one the insider’s perspective, because of her famously dramatic life.
Liane de Pougy, is the name and persona invented by the woman born Anne-Marie Chassaigne. Born in 1869 in the Pays de la Loire region of North-western France she was educated at a nunnery until the age of sixteen when she eloped with a naval officer Armand Pourpe. The marriage proved to be a toxic one, Pourpe being violent and abusive and Anne-Marie feeling herself completely unsuited for being a mother to her son. She then had an affair with an aristocrat, the Marquis de Mac mahon. After finding them in bed together, her husband shot her with his revolver injuring her in the wrist. Abandoning her husband and her son she ran away to Paris where she quickly progressed from cabaret singer and prostitute to becoming one of the periods famed Grande horizontales, a self-explanatory phrase that feels like it could be an English invented phrase, part of the Anglo-Saxon stereotyping of perceived French pretentiousness and licentiousness.
In Paris she was a famed demi-mondaine, sought after by the elite of society, both male and female. It is here that she first called herself de Pougy, borrowing the name from an aristocratic lover. Many of her most famous relationships were with woman, the most famous amongst them with American writer Natalie Clifford Barney inspiring her novel Idylle Saphique (published by Dedalus as A Woman’s Affair), a temptuous lesbian love affair. Throughout her twenties and thirties she wrote courtesan novels influenced by her first hand experiences. In 1910 she remarried to a Romanian Prince Georges Ghika, becoming Princess Ghika. After the death of her son in the First World War de Pougy’s spirit turned towards the faith of her upbringing. A chance visit to a convent dedicated to caring for disabled children inspired her to sponsor the convent with donations for the rest of her life. After her husband’s death she became a tertiary of the order of Saint Dominic. She died Sister Anne-Marie de la Penitence. From the convent to the convent by way of two marriages, and the notoriety of the sinful life.
L’insaisissable (translated by Dedalus as Chasing the Dream) is the first of her novels. It tells the story of Josiane de Valneige, a beautiful young courtesan who has left her unhappy marriage for the glamour of Paris. Seeking excitement, fulfilment and love, she takes numerous lovers from amongst the rich, influential and famous of Paris. The novel is told in the form of letters Josiane writes to a former lover who has become a fascinated and supportive confidante. Wearied by the drama of her romances she retreats to the countryside where she finally does experience the love she has longed for. A young man, naive, inexperienced, but sincere and passionate. Sadly, he dies from fever, their love never consummated. The chance of a beautiful love has been taken away. The novel ends with Josiane hopefully speculating love will again blossom in her life.
Strongly influenced by her own life and rather conventional in structure, the novel is nonetheless so appealing because she is telling the tale of her own life. One does not suspect a lurking religious moral, or that a syrupy love triumphing over all romance is going to be the finale, where a man basically rescues her (rescuing the troubled beautiful woman from prostitution she has fallen into due an abusive upbringing/relationship is more or less the Pretty Woman plot). One empathises with a search for a different sort of life, a more exciting life, and can even admire the willingness to make the courtesan’s gambit. That the life of a woman who died in 1950 and who lived in one of the most prosperous societies the world has ever seen should have found herself seeking a freer life in the same manner as an Ancient Hellenic Hetaira is for a modern reader perhaps the most remarkable and damning aspect of the novel.
Young Dedalus published its first titles in March 2020. Four books, all of them translations. Just as Dedalus has developed a reputation for publishing neglected classics, great untranslated literature and highly unusual imaginative stories, Young Dedalus was established to publish the neglected classics, great untranslated literature and highly unusual, imaginative stories that the older Dedalus reader might have enjoyed when they were a child. The first four books that have been published so far are all translations, two from Portuguese, one from Spanish and one from German, continuing the tradition of Dedalus prioritising publishing European literature in English.
As is probably clear from the title of my blog it is the German novel I am going to write about. It tells the story of an eleven-year-old boy who plans on leaving home with no accompanying adult, to travel to Sicily where his Father lives and bring him back home. After an argument Carlo’s German mother threw his Sicilian Father out, and his Father returned to Italy. For five months and six days Carlo has been waiting to see his Father. “I just can’t shake off the words waiting and Papa”. Telling his Mother, he is going to stay with a friend, he takes his money roll of 210 Euros, wearing a hand me down suit and tie from his Father, and heads to the station. On the way the chubby Carlo can’t resist visiting an Italian Restauranteur called Pietro who is always happy to give his friend a few slices of Pizza.
What follows are a series of adventures in which Carlo stows away aboard a sleeper train because he does not have enough money for the journey, has his property stolen by a taxi driver in Italy, and after sneaking aboard a ferry for Sicily is blackmailed into giving up his prized signed Bochum goalkeeper’s Jersey. These experiences are interspersed with memories of his Father, who we learn is a larger than life, exciting figure to his son, but who is still irresponsible and negligent of how much his son wants and needs him.
One memory that sticks out from when his Father still lived with him in Germany, is of him going missing for three days. We are told this is not unusual, but what makes it so bad is that one of those days was Carlo’s Birthday. When his Father does appear, and after many exclamations of ‘Mio Dio!’, he tells Carlo he has not forgotten his Birthday, he had postponed it. Unable to resist his Father’s bear hugs and irrepressible laughs, Carlo asks him if he has tickets for the Bochum game today. He reassures him he has and takes him on his moped to the stadium.
His Father does not actually have tickets, but he knows a steward on the turnstiles. After telling him that his son is going to be the next Bochum keeper and that surely a fellow Italian can fail to do a countryman a good turn, his Father manages to get them in for the second half. Bochum win the game after a penalty shootout. His Father then tells him they are going to collect his present from the president. After pushing through a row of people around the president in the upper stand he strikes up a conversation with him. He quickly has him laughing, and pointing to his son tells him it is his Birthday, Carlo is allowed to see the players in the dressing room where he gets his goalkeepers shirt signed by Bochum’s penalty saving hero.
It is clearly a fairy-tale memory with an embellishment here and there, but one that clearly emphasises how much Carlo misses his father that later on he is willing to give up his prized shirt on his ambitious quest to bring his father home.
When Carlo reaches his Father’s home, his Father is delighted and passionately embraces him. He is stunned that his son has come all this way alone and endures a barrage of maternal fury over the phone. He takes his son to the market to buy as many fresh ingredients for a grand breakfast over which Carlo relays to him all his adventures. Listening wild eyed one thinks perhaps his Father is finally understanding the gap he has left in his son’s life. But later on, on the very same day when he takes Carlo to the beach for ice cream and to sunbathe, he receives a phone call. Telling Carlo it will be half an hour maximum, his son ends up waiting for him for an hour and a half. Going back to his Father’s house in a rage he sees him arguing with a woman he does not know and proceeds to shout at him for always promising things that he never delivers and for always keeping him waiting after building his hopes up.
Seeing his son so worked up clearly has an effect on Carlo’s Father. He also recognises something of himself in the impulsiveness of his adventure. There is an understated quality about this realisation that is quite disarming. Carlo’s Papa doesn’t become a model Father and when he returns to Germany with his son, he does not get back together with Carlo’s Mother. He does however make more of an effort to see his son and deliver on his promises, such as taking his son regularly to football games. Carlo’s adventure has shown him how much he has to grow up to ensure the happiness of the son he clearly loves. Considering how comfortable much of contemporary media is to talk of toxic masculinity it was heartening to read a sensitive and sympathetic story of a father and son, a story of the responsibility and importance of fathers.
It is hard to think of a new beginning for a publishing company founded thirty-six years ago and with its original founders still in place but that what is happening for Dedalus.
At the beginning of a new year a new publisher will be born, Young Dedalus. It begins as an imprint of the existing company but the plan is to develop as a freestanding publisher with a full range of titles designed for young readers between 9 and 13 years of age. The first 4 titles are all translations as that is what we primarily do but our intention is to expand and publish original English-language fiction and classics both in translation and written in English. We want to offer our young readers exciting, strong narratives which will take them from reading heavily illustrated books to their teenage years. Like all high-quality fiction our books will also appeal to readers of all ages.
Young Dedalus will also have its own publisher, Timothy Lane, who will develop and nurture this new imprint, as it carves out its place in the publishing world. Timothy was not born when Dedalus began but grew up with a publishing company at home and shares the enthusiasm of his parents for literature and the printed word. He is Dedalus’ Europe Editor and now has the opportunity to create a publishing company to reflect his passion for children’s fiction and build on his kaleidoscopic knowledge.
In January we begin with Nobody Can Stop Don Carlo by Oliver Scherz, translated from German by Deirdre McMahon and The Girl from the Sea and other stories by Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, translated from Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson. A month later they will be followed by The Books that Devoured my Father by the Portuguese author Afonso Cruz and Memoirs of a Basque Cow by the Basque author Bernardo Atxaga, both translated by Margaret Jull Costa.
A great beginning for a new publishing company!
A nobleman in his slippers wearing a light linen jacket over his pink cotton shirt sits in the library of his manor house, he is scratching his head with his quill looking down forlornly at the sheet of foolscap paper in front of him. His name is Goncalo Mendes Ramires, heir to the most distinguished noble family in Portugal, older than the line of the King of Portugal and Portugal itself. At a table stacked with thick volumes of genealogical history, Bluteau’s Portuguese and Latin Vocabulary and the medieval romances of Walter Scott, Goncalo is attempting to write a historical novel inspired by his glorious ancestors.
He is the last of his line, a line that includes crusaders and conquistadors, warriors who invaded Castile, a vagabond who topped a gambler’s life with the command of a pirate ship, and countless companions and confidantes of the Kings of Portugal. In more recent generations Ramires’ men had been patrons of the arts and vying for ministerial positions, Goncalo’s own father is described as ‘wearing out his shoe leather going up and down the steps of various ministries and of the Mortgage Bank’, until finally a minister had appointed him the Governor of Oliveira, not due to his talent we are told, but because that particular minister found his favourite mistress was rather keen on Goncalo’s father.
Our Goncalo in his time at university has been failing his exams but developing his literary ambitions, partly inspired by another student Castanheiro who has founded a patriotic journal with the aim of reawakening a sense of the ‘beauty, grandeur and glory of Portugal’. Submitting his first literary effort to the Patriot’s Club he is hailed by his small peer group as ‘our Walter Scott’. As he toasts his friends over glasses of wine, he announces a far more ambitious literary work, a two-part historical epic inspired by his own family lore.
After Castanheiro’s graduation the Patriot’s club dwindles, and Goncalo in grieving for his recently deceased father has lost much of his flamboyance and concern for grand political matters. Upon graduation Goncalo heads for Lisbon to settle a number of mortgages on family estates and to make the acquaintances of important political figures. Meeting Castanheiro after a long separation he finds the poetic patriot still as passionate as ever. He enquires after the mooted two- volume novel Goncalo had planned and on hearing the lack of progression, assumes his friend has lost heart. Fired afresh by this meeting Goncalo returns to his hotel and vows to return to the family homestead and accomplish something towards his literary and political ambitions, even if now he sets himself the far more manageable goal of writing a novella. Making the task far less troubling for the indolent and ease-loving side of Goncalo’s temperament an uncle had previously completed a thoroughly researched poem on the Ramires’ family. Using the poem as his reference point, he can build a literary career and bolster his political ambitions, just when a patriotic advocate from an exulted and distinguished family is most needed.
So we meet the thirty year old aristocratic bachelor trying, dawdling, failing, procrastinating and plagiarising his way towards the writing of a work that can’t possibly fulfil all his quixotic desires. Struggling to write, more indebted than his ancestors, reluctant to pursue a proper relationship with any interested women, stung by local gossips, and even facing the humiliating assaults of a fair-haired local farmer who delights in tormenting him, there is a strong sense about Goncalo’s life, about his family’s status, that the best days are in the past. When one factors in that Goncalo is in part a personification of Portugal itself, one sees that Eca de Queiroz’s sympathetic portrait of the likeable, but weak Goncalo overshadowed by a family past he can’t possibly live up to, or even keep going, is a commentary upon a country that is struggling to cope with its diminished status.
The contrast between Goncalo and the warlike ancestors who appear in his uncle’s poem and his novella could not be more striking. Aristocracy is of course a sense of distinction and greater worth predicated on descent from an exulted past ancestor. Something of its innate silliness can be gaged by considering that if many modern aristocrats could actually meet their most famous ancient ancestors, they would most likely find them uncivilised, bellicose and vulgar, little different from their underlings in terms of culture, and raised above them chiefly by might. The warriors of the medieval period would not only be radically different from their descendants, they would most likely think their descendants pitiful weaklings. Furthermore, the utterly alien nature of the past and its priorities can cause discomfort, there is a natural desire to soften the rough edges, and place the great feats of the past within a narrative framework that naturally leads to us and all we value in the present and hope to perpetuate. That people from previous generations had the same naive views of the past and the present is rarely considered.
Despite being no great intellectual Goncalo is sufficiently aware of these ironies. And part of the reason he becomes such a likeable character is that he has such straightforward desires for his life and his failings have little harmful effect on anyone but himself. He is a good friend who is well liked by his peers, he is generous and full of genuine warm feeling to those who work on his estates, he loves his sister and is upset at gossips who are saying she has been unfaithful with a man far more dashing than her husband, and he is unwilling to abandon his beliefs to achieve political advancement. He would simply like to be a worthy figure in his family line, sitting proudly in the glow of a romanticised past, in a proud and confident nation.
Of all the prolific great nineteenth century novelists none have had quite the baffling neglect in the English-speaking world as Eca de Queiroz. Perhaps his extensive stay in England as Portuguese consul and the frequent cynicism and ironic humour at the expense of his host nation may have played some part, but in all of his writings on England their runs a vein of humour and grudging appreciation – describing the country as probably the foremost thinking nation, praising the tradition of Christmas stories for children – to his observations that is far from the much stronger streak of self-depreciation that Orwell was later to remark as running through the English intellectual class. And for all his criticism he spent fifteen years in the country and wrote many of his greatest masterpieces here, including his most celebrated work, The Maias, in Bristol. Perhaps sometimes the best inspirations are also the sharpest provocations.
Whatever his writings on England, I think the best way to make the case for Queiroz is to let a contemporary of his speak for him, and who better than Emile Zola, who said ‘Queiroz is far greater than my own dear master, Flaubert.’
Panorama by Dušan Šarotar, translated by Rawley Grau
Dušan Šarotar takes the reader on a deeply reflective yet kaleidoscopic journey from northern to southern Europe. In a manner that invokes the writings of W.G. Sebald, Šarotar supplements the narrative with photographs, which help to blur the lines between fiction and journalism. The writer’s experience of landscape is bound up in a personal yet elusive search for self-discovery, as he and a diverse group of international fellow travellers relate in their individual and distinctive voices their unique stories and their common quest for somewhere they might call home.
‘The hydraulic ebb and flow of Panorama’s sentence waves subsumes the role of narration … Giving oneself to these meditative rhythms represents the true depth and joy of this novel – and it is a spiritual joy.’ – Andrew Singer, World Literature Today
‘This is not a novel in which anything happens; it has all happened already, catastrophically, and the condition of exile is the only place from which one can achieve peace or perspective. This is what I think this marvellous book is telling us.’ – Nicholas Lezard, Guardian
‘Some literature defies simple description. Case in point, Panorama, by Slovenian poet and writer Dušan Šarotar. One might be inclined to define it as a meditation within a travelogue within a novel. Or perhaps you would prefer to rearrange those terms, it probably wouldn’t matter, because in spite of its subtitle, A Narrative about the Course of Events, Panorama stands at a curious angle to space and time. It is a novel of remembering, of telling and retelling, narratives within narratives, bound together by a coarse thread of repeating themes that are at once timeless and timely.’ – Joseph Schreiber, Numéro Cinq
The House of Remembering and Forgetting by Filip David, translated by Christina Pribićević-Zorić
Young Albert Weiss was spared the horrors of Auschwitz when his parents threw him and his brother from the transport train. Years later, with the help of other survivors of the holocaust, he explores the myriad ways of confronting not just the evil that robbed him of his childhood, but the guilt he feels for having lost his brother on that wintry night.
‘While warning us of the consequences of the choice between what to remember and what to forget, David suggests a new dialogue between memory and forgetfulness, a need for a new language for understanding evil.’ – World Literature Today
This week at Northumbria University it was graduation day, or congregation as we like to call it. Our chancellor, paralympian champion Tanni Grey-Thompson, was handing out the symbolic scrolls, with an honorary one going to historian David Olusoga. Both gave eloquent and uplifting speeches, much like ones heard at similar ceremonies around the world. Easy in fact to be cynical about wise words from the great and good if you happen to be a young graduate fidgeting in fancy dress, eager to get out and throw your mortarboard in the air, less certain what will happen after that. For the parents in the audience, as I know from experience, the encomiums sound different; fitting tribute to one’s offspring and a welcome signal that they’re now on their way to, well, something less expensive. My presence on this occasion, though, was for a different reason; not as graduate or guest, but as creative writing PhD supervisor. Beside me in the front row was novelist John Schoneboom, whom I was to accompany onstage as he was awarded his degree. It was a truly happy and proud moment.
John initially came to Northumbria as an MA student in creative writing. He was working on a novel – surreal, off-beat, hilarious – from which it was immediately apparent that here was a very special voice and distinctive talent. I suggested that when he completed the novel he should send it to Dedalus; he did and in 2014 Fontoon was published. Like most works of literary fiction it did little to shake the dogmatic slumber of mass consciousness or – to put it another way – make either John or Dedalus rich. That’s not why we do what we do. John had stuck his first flag into the great pimply backside of posterity, and now he’d better try and come up with another.
This was what he worked on as a PhD student at Northumbria. His thesis was to consist of a 70,000-word novel and 30,000-word critical commentary, written under the mentorship of myself and co-supervisor Michael Cawood Green. Think of it like Andy Murray coached by Ivan Lendl; Italo Svevo and James Joyce; Steve Brookstein and Simon Cowell – heck, do I need to go on?
What I’m saying – a lot less well than Baroness Tanni or Dr David – is how genuinely satisfying it is to see the achievement of people to whom you’ve given a little help, occasionally a little push, hopefully some encouragement and maybe even, who knows, a morsel of inspiration. Having in the last quarter of a century made my own pinpricks on the bum of history – The Great Chain of Unbeing is the latest – I draw hope from those still in the antemeridian of their career. To John I say well done, and to all my students I say – keep writing!
Jenna Clake was born in Staffordshire in 1992. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Birmingham, where her research focused on the Feminine and Feminist Absurd in twenty-first century British and American poetry. Jenna’s poetry has appeared in Poems in Which, The Bohemyth, Oxford Poetry, and more. Fortune Cooke is her debut collection. She has this to say on the poetry of Gaia Holmes, whose third collection of poetry is called Where the Road Runs Out.
‘Gaia Holmes’s poems are meditations on evening fires, familial duty, where someone is ‘definitely dying’, where the outside comes in, the land and the natural world become an integral part of self, community and understanding grief. These poems made me light a candle, find another blanket, crave fresh bread, and send thoughts to my loved ones many miles away.’