Saturday, 21 July 2012

Reflections Upon Reflections

So to speak.  As someone who has upon occasion pondered  the make-up of fiction for academic purposes and has a fascination with the writing process, I was quick to place a copy of Diana Wynne Jones's  Reflections on order, not least because she is also one of my favourite fantasy authors.  As an added bonus, this also means the opportunity to read Neil Gaiman's Foreword to the collection of papers – a treat in itself, given he knew Diana Wynne Jones personally and the wording of his contribution to the pieces reflects this in tone.  It is also poignant, given the anthology was compiled from existing manuscripts in the knowledge that Diana was terminally ill.  Her Preface confirms she envisaged them as an opportunity for readers and students alike to reflect upon both her “ideas and convictions about writing for children, writing, and fantasy generally”, in addition to providing useful material charting “the creative process itself”.  In this, she is entirely successful.
The contents of the collection range from literary criticism related to the shape of the narrative in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and a review of Mervyn Peake's Boy in Darkness to anecdotes concerning reading tours and information concerning the origins of, amongst others, Fire and Hemlock and The Merlin Conspiracy.  There are also hints for developing writers concerning characterisation and one of the last ever interviews conducted with the author prior to her death.  Any one of these makes the book worth reading for anyone even remotely familiar with Diana Wynne Jones’ works or of a creative bent personally, as I’ve already stated previously.

For me, one of the things which struck me most whilst making my way through the various contributions was how strongly the author’s personality came across within her descriptions of the “two kinds” of writing required within speculative fiction (i.e. writing for children and for adults and the differences between the two) and “Answers to Some Questions”, to cite merely two examples within the entirety of the text.  I was also fascinated by the biographical detail within the section entitled “Something About the Author”, given it was apparent from the brief autobiographical hints apparent within her The Time of the Ghost (US version here, for one) that Diana Wynne Jones had had what might be termed a somewhat unusual childhood.  

As a fan of this author’s works in general, this is a welcome addition to my collection and I was glad of the opportunity to familiarise myself with additional material from her; previously unpublished in a number of cases.  I’m only sad that it emphasises the fact that there will be nothing further to add to the collection and that those who value the significance of Diana Wynne Jones’ writing to the field of speculative fiction (such that she was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the World Fantasy Association in 2007) will not be afforded the opportunity for additional examples of her offbeat sense of humour, original plotlines and quirky characterisation.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

The Alternative Norman Conqueror

I’ve recently had the opportunity to read and appreciate Alan Ayckbourn's inventive and comic trilogy of plays, "The Norman Conquests", comprising “Table Manners”, “Living Together” and “Round and Round the Garden”.  All can be read separately; together, however, they take on added nuance and meaning, given one shows us what happens in the dining room over the space of the weekend, whereas the others provide an account of the events within the sitting-room and the garden, respectively.  From what I’ve read, Ayckbourn seems to have envisaged this affording the audience the opportunity to see a trilogy of plays which present all “four walls” of a setting – something he notes that audiences themselves are often required to function as.  

The plays concern themselves with six main (and only) characters who gather together on a weekend in July at a country house.  The house itself belongs to an unseen but tyrannical invalid whose unmarried daughter, Annie, cares for her.  On the Saturday evening when the plays start, Annie’s brother, Reg, and his wife Sarah have just arrived to take over nursing duties from her so that she can have a break and go away for the weekend.  Reg gives this little thought.  Sarah, however, assumes the weekend will afford Annie an opportunity to go away with the local vet, Tom, who has been making regular visits to see Annie without actually ever getting around to courting her.  In fact, Annie has made arrangements to go away to sample the delights of the less than sultry East Grinstead with Norman, an assistant librarian with “a rather aimless sort of beard”, who is prepared to court anyone, given half an opportunity and who also happens to be married to her sister, Ruth…

Despite being written in the Seventies, the plays remain fresh and the humour intact.  The chief delight, however, stems from Ayckbourn’s deft characterisation throughout.  Not only do Reg, Annie and Ruth provide a realistic portrayal of familial relationships when forced into close proximity with one another and the spats which are prone to occur with their respective partners (Reg has food thrown at him by Sarah in “Table Manners”), we also see the layers to each during the course of the two days they spend in one another’s company.  Whilst Annie is initially portrayed as somewhat of a doormat, having taken on a significant degree of responsbility for her mother, this is not the full story.  She is both capable of arranging a weekend away with Norman and standing up to Sarah when necessary.  Sarah struggles to maintain her sense of order and control in the face of emotional turmoil.  Ruth is revealed to appreciate the unconventional nature of her relationship with Norman, in a “chalk and cheese” form of attraction.

In the midst of matters, Norman acts as a sort of wrecking ball, creating chaos wherever he lands.  Bereft of his opportunity to whisk Annie away for the weekend by a disapproving Sarah, he proceeds to wreak havoc.  Interestingly, however, he does this on a number of occasions at the instigation of others.  Annie is keen to be whisked off her feet by someone and experience some excitement, whilst Sarah has been starved of attention.  Tom actively seeks his advise as someone he considers wise in the ways of the world, something he himself cannot pretend to be.  For this reason and given his portrayal as somewhat of a lovable rogue, it is hard to dislike the character.  He displays charm in his interactions with the others, despite the manner in which his affections waver between them.  As such, Ruth’s description of him as an “oversized unmanageable dog” who is prone to “jump up” at those who encourage him is accurate.  Ultimately, this is something the women he approaches come to appreciate via personal experience by the conclusion of the plays, leaving them disillusioned and dismissive.  This leaves the audience to ponder whether and, if so, to what extent this reaction will lead to any change in Norman, who, in his own words, “only” sought to make them “happy”.