Two opposite things are rubbing up against each other in my mind, and I can't work out how they fit together, so I've come over here to try to do so.
First, my friend, the thriller writer Debi Alper, who's also a photographer, has been blogging about a part of her life which I, for one, didn't really know about. Twenty-five years ago she was living in Grenada, taking part in the Revolution which seemed to have created a free and democratic state in the Caribbean. She was there when the military took power and then assassinated Maurice Bishop and his pregnant partner, and when the US invaded, and she kept a detailed diary. Now she's finally found the courage to revist the past and, day by day in her present, she's describing what happened day by day then. (That link is to the latest post, but it's really, really worth starting at the beginning by following the links at the top of it.) It's a story which needs, and gets, the plainest, most simple treatment: there's no need for high verbal drama or elaborate descriptions of states of mind, but just the kind of telling that, paradoxically, only real writerly craft can bring to such a story. Its impact comes partly from the form Debi's chosen. She's a long-standing blogger, so perhaps that was the obvious choice, but it's also about immediacy. It makes me think of the annals kept by monks and medieval guilds and eighteenth century antiquarians. They did it because they knew history was being made, but the writing is of today, the moment: it's present tense and first person, the personal as political, and no future yet known.
And, at the other end of things, I scooped up an old favourite for a late night bath: Ngaio Marsh's Opening Night (1951, and published as Night at the Vulcan in the US). Marsh's homophobia is truly vile, and though her racism is much less antagonistic it still jars, though like her snobbery it's no worse than that of her contemporaries. But at her best - among the artists and theatres of her own professional background - she's terrific. Someone's been gassed: how many of the characters can do respiration? Most of them learnt 'when I was an ARP warden'. Another character, shaken, says, 'I never really got used to dead bodies, not even in the war.' A near-destitute girl is rescued and housed: 'You will give me your ration book and I will shop for us both,' says her rescuer. And that's it. The War isn't a theme or a set of ideas, there are no memories, no point being made about how it shaped everyone, or haunts them, or is the origin of any of the tangled motives and actions which must be untangled to find the murderer. It's as much a un-remarked part of ordinary interaction as putting on makeup or dodging a mildly lacivious stage doorman. But I think a novelist now, setting a story in 1950, would, paradoxically, be far more conscious of the immediate past: would need to set the Austerity scene, colour it in, gives us the war-memories and shape the characters with them: the war would need to be doing something in the book.
So why do these two entirely unrelated things keep banging together in my mind? Is it because, as I was saying in Under the bugle-beaded bonnet, sometimes I wonder if in my own work, in searching for sources of drama and conflict (and what storyteller isn't?) I default to war, like love, too easily? Is it because even I - always ready to fight fiction's corner as an equal kind of truth in describing world-historical events - nonetheless feel that sometimes only documentary will do? No, it's not quite either of these, and it bothers me that I can't find the connection, because connecting things is what I do, how I make sense of the world, how I write fiction. And yet I'm absolutely sure there is one. It's something about the place which our experience, once past, takes - or doesn't take - in our sense of ourselves. And something about how we see ourselves fitting into the larger history which we've lived in and through. And that, so far, is all I can manage. It's driving me nuts, and this is probably the least coherent post I've ever done. Maybe I'll see it some day, and then... well, no doubt it'll end up in a novel. Things usually do.