Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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2011 in First Lines

It is traditional here at Charlotte’s Web to review the past year in blogging by posting the first lines from the first post of every month. Having scrolled through my 2011 posts, one thing is clear to me: life took over from blogging this year. After moving house in January, I spent many long hours revising Balthasar’s Gift, many hours pounding the pavements training for the Mannheim team marathon, many hours planning and giving two weekend-long creative writing workshops at Heidelberg University and then, in July, starting a six-month job posting at one of my customers replacing someone out on maternity leave. It was quite a year!

January: So I’ve reviewed my goals for 2010 and found them to be good.  Ten Things for 2011

February: One of the most appealing things about Germany is its cafe society; places where you can nurse a coffee, read a book and watch the world go by.  Cafe Society

March: Today is the anniversary of the death of Herbert James Downs, who was murdered in South Africa a few weeks after his 100th birthday.  In Memory of Herbert James Downs

April: Life has taken over from blogging – nothing serious, but an accumulation of things over the past three months that have left me exhausted.   Hiatus

May: May is turning out to be quite the month chez moi, which means my presence here at Charlotte’s Web will continue to be vague, scattered and somewhat erratic.  May Madness

June: While reading to the creative writing students about voice this weekend, I found myself getting a little choked up.  More on Voice

July: I’ve just come back from a week in Mallorca, having found its quiet, laid-back corner (it still exists) and am feeling horizontal.  Feeling Horizontal

August:  So I’m back in full time work for the first time this century, and I am loving it.  Three Things I Love about Work

September: Still loving work, so that’s a good thing.  On Women and Work

October: My grandmother was not only an angel, but she was more than a little fey. Survival Skills

November:  My life has changed exponentially – and for the better – since I re-entered the working world. What Feminist Motherhood Means to Me (Now)

December: The theme of today’s World AIDS Day is ‘Getting to Zero’ (zero new infections; zero discrimination; zero AIDS-related deaths)’.    World AIDS Day 2011 – Are There Any Good News Stories?

What was your 2011 like?

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Siri Hustvedt in Heidelberg

Charlotte Otter in Paris*

Last night I had the honour of hearing Siri Hustvedt read from and talk about the ideas that informed her new novel The Summer Without Men. Heidelberg doesn’t get many visits from major literary celebrities and Hustvedt is up there in my top five favourite authors, so despite having a husband out of town, babysitters canceling at the seventeenth hour, a parking snarfu in the city centre, I made it, clutching my little blue ticket like Charlie gaining admittance to the chocolate factory.

It was worth it. Siri is razor-sharp, witty and incisive. She read sections from the book in English, which a local actress then read in German.

The Summer Without Men – which I haven’t finished yet, but am savouring like a delicious treat – is the story of Mia, a poet whose scientist husband Boris decides he needs a pause after thirty years of marriage.

“The Pause was French with limp but shiny brown hair. She had significant breasts that were real, not manufactured, narrow rectangular glasses, and an excellent mind. She was young, of course, twenty years younger than I was, and my suspicion is that Boris had lusted after his colleague for some time before he lunged at her significant regions.”

Mia goes mad for a short time, a Brief Psychotic Disorder her doctors call it, and then retreats home to her mother in Minnesota, where she spends a summer in the republic of women, a summer without men.

Vital to the novel is the word “pause”. Boris does not request a stop because he wants to “keep the narrative open, in case he changed his mind.” Hustvedt said last night that the novel itself is a pause in the life of the character, the place between Crazy Winter and Sane Fall.

She also said that this was her first attempt at comedy. Comedy is subversive and she was trying to subvert and resist the idea that “the imagination and intellect of women is inferior to the imagination and intellect of men”. Men and women walk around with this unconscious prejudice and she was attempting to unpick it.

Her main tool in doing so was irony. “The tone is the thing. This is a banal situation. But Anna Karenina is banal. So is Madame Bovary. Just because it is a banal story, told with irony, doesn’t mean it is without feeling.” Later, when the moderator suggested that irony emancipates, she agreed, “Totally!” And later, “Where would we be without it?”

I haven’t reached this part yet, but during her summer, Mia takes herself on an intellectual journey through literature, science and philosophy, trying to find a “territory of ammunition” where she can understand what has happened to her. Hustvedt described this as a dance, one in which she herself is also engaged. She talked in detail about how the science of the gendered brain is being undermined, saying that the brain is plastic and changes according to experience. “The idea that women think differently is untenable.” She was not dismissing neurobiology, only saying that it was full of unconscious perceptions about women and much of of these prejudices go unacknowledged.

Her conclusion was that there is a small biological difference between the sexes and not much more. Both Hustvedt and her narrator come to realise that what is important is only “how much difference that difference makes and how we choose to frame it.”

It was all  highly interesting, especially as Hustvedt operates in a literary milieu that damns women’s writing as domestic, while men’s writing is of course about the human condition. If the floor had been opened to questions, this was what I was planning to ask her, but I feel that she answered me anyway: to reverse the stereotypes and prejudices about women, gender and difference we must talk, subvert, mock, play and use irony. We shouldn’t be frighten to question received ideas in literature, science and philosophy and re-present them for our own use. There are many examples of this in The Summer Without Men, but the best is that of a certain Renaldus Columbus, who in 1559 – to the stupefecation of many women – was credited with discovering the clitoris.

To this, Mia pens a limerick:

“When Columbus spied the Mount of bliss,

He stopped and asked himself, “What is this?”

A button, a pea?

An anomaly?

No, silly man, it’s a clitoris!”

It was a fabulous and dazzling evening, only slightly spoilt by the moderator, who had clearly decided not to plan any questions in advance and think on his feet. As a result, he came across as woolly, pompous and arrogant. Which in the light of what Hustvedt is saying about gendered perceptions of intelligence is rather ironic.

*On her tour of Europe, Siri Hustvedt did a reading at Shakespeare and Company in Paris


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When I Was 35

In 2007, I wrote a blog post called When I Was 25. I had forgotten all about it, until the lovely Amanda visited and left this comment:

I’m so happy I came across this, now several years after you wrote it. I turned 25 eight days ago and I’m kind of doing research on the disenchantment and restlessness one feels around this age. I’ve certainly gained some insight in a different way than I expected from your post as well as all the comments.

I reread the post and realised that making an effort to remember a time long ago brings its own lessons, ones that are worth contemplating. It is now seven years since I turned 35 and since I believe in the seven-year cycle and the spirit of learning more, I give you When I was 35:

When I was 35, I thought my family was complete with two darling little girls. Then I fell pregnant again and our son was born. I learnt that being a parent of three children is significantly different from being the parent of two. A wise friend said, ‘Embrace the chaos,’ and once I did, life became much easier. But much more than that, my heart just expanded to include him and what a feeling that is.

When I was 35, I had never heard of blogging. Now I have a whole alternative, Internet-fuelled life and I love it. I have even met some people off the Internet and came home intact.

When I was 35, the idea of writing a book, finishing it, rewriting it multiple times, joining an online writing community, getting beta readers,  submitting to and signing with a literary agent was only a dream. I made it reality.

When I was 35, I grew tired of buying expensive (though delicious) cakes at the  bakery and taught myself to bake. This happened.

When I was 35, I thought that donning sports shoes and propelling my body in a forward motion was closer to hell than I thought it was ever necessary to go. As an asthmatic kid and an adult with couch-potato tendencies, jogging never entered my personal vocabulary. This year, I’m running in the MLP Marathon relay event.

When I was 35, I was still buried deep in the intense phase of parenting: nappies, bad nights, tantrums. Now that my three spend large chunks of the day in other places being taken care of and taught by others, I have had the luxury to do things like write, run and earn money.

When I was 35, I had never had a migraine. Now, I have worked out my cure: no alcohol for two weeks of the month. It’s radical, but it works.

When I was 35, I had just moved to the Burg from Surrey, England, and was suffering culture shock. I settled down, made lovely friends and a home for my family. The Burg grew too small, so for a while, I considered Berlin, the German city that holds my heart and where I still hope to live one day. Now I live in Heidelberg and love my new life.

When I was 35, I still highlighted my hair blonde. Then I went grey for Obama and it turns out I was leading a major trend. Just call me a rock ‘n roll fairy princess.

When I was 35, I had been married for 10 years and believed that I was in it for the duration. I still do *waves to darling*.

When I was 35, I had no idea what my future held. I trusted that things would work out, that I would be gainfully employed, that my family would be happy and well. Since then I have read hundreds of books, held dozens of dinner-parties, cooked hundreds of meals, written hundreds of thousands of words, written dozens of articles, run a few dozen kilometres, met my girlfriends for book club dozens of times. On the bad days, I have sighed and taken stock and picked myself up and carried on. While I now have an inkling of what my future may hold, I still cannot say for sure that it will turn out the way I have it in my mind. But I won’t stop hoping. Or cooking, baking, reading, wiping faces, loving, writing words, occasionally running, dreaming, sighing and imagining a world where my family is happy and well.

What was life like for you when you were 35?


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Cafe Society

One of the most appealing things about Germany is its cafe society; places where you can nurse a coffee, read a book and watch the world go by. You are never hassled to move on, they serve breakfast all day long and usually have an array of freshed baked cakes. German cafes tend to have a handy stash of magazines and newspapers, so if you happen to leave your book at home, there’s always something to read.

Writing at home is fraught with booby-traps: the laundry, the phone, members of my family, so I have spent large chunks of the last three years writing in Heidelberg cafes where I have no alternative but to knuckle down. I thought that over the next few weeks, I’d introduce you to some of my favourites.

The first candidate is my newest find, the Literature Cafe. On arriving in Heidelberg, the first thing we did was join the library, a lovely glass building overlooking a small park in the centre of town. It is light-filled, groaning with books and scattered with cushions for readers to lounge on. My family and I felt immediately at home.

Attached to the library is the Literature Cafe and yesterday, without my small attendants and in need of a quiet hour to face my novel revisions, I went there. The cafe is glass-walled, like the library, so even on a gloomy, rain-bespattered day, it was light. There is a terrace that will come into its own in a couple of months time.

The cafe has a small menu of hot and cold drinks, breakfast items, sandwiches and cakes, which are apparently baked by the owner herself. There is a short daily specials menu, and since I was there at lunch-time, I ordered the spicy vegetable coconut soup, which was delicious and an extremely reasonable €3.50. Along with a large Milchkaffee and a mineral water, my bill came in at €7.50. The service was polite and efficient, and in the German manner to which I have grown happily accustomed, not over-friendly. On Sunday, the Literature Cafe does a brunch for €6.50 per person, which is a bargain. There is a selection of 50 newspapers from around the world, which customers are welcome to pick up and read with their coffee.

For me, the Literature Cafe’s biggest selling point is its proximity to  the library. You can get your books and head straight for the cafe to start reading. The clientele yesterday were mainly people on their own, either reading or writing. Those in couples or groups spoke quietly, as if in deference to the library next door, and the only person who broke the quiet was a four-year-old who had a spectacular melt-down but was quickly removed by his mother. I could still hear his screams of  ‘Mean Mummy! Mean Mummy!’ going down the road as I smugly returned to my personal oasis of coffee and words.

Heidelberg’s Literature Cafe can be found at Poststrasse 15. It is open Tuesday to Friday from 10am till 8pm, Saturdays from 10am till 5pm and Sundays from 10am till 3pm.


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Happiness and Revisions

I’m still unpacking boxes but am gloriously happy in my new home. Living without a kitchen is interesting, but since I was the one who sold the concept to my family as a big adventure, I’m not allowed to complain. Let’s just say that once the cooking on camping plates and the washing up in the bath comes to an end, I’ll be even happier than I am now. Fit to burst happy. Disgustingly, floating on air happy.

I had more happy news about Balthasar’s Gift. My agent M works with a fabulous London literary agency who sell her books in the British market, and she sells theirs in the German market. A couple of agents read BG over Christmas and reportedly ‘loved it.’ They have asked for some revisions and after a call with them next week, I will be getting to it.

This is the third set of agent revisions I will have done since August last year. The road to publication is not easy! And ’tis filled with revisions!

However, I can see BG getting stronger and stronger and that makes me – you guessed it – happy.


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From the Burg to the Berg

Change is upon me, in all kinds of ways. My novel is sitting with three publishers on three different continents, and I am trying not to refresh my inbox forty times a minute. Patience, I have been told, is of the essence. Luckily, I have all kinds of things to keep me busy. Christmas is one, an imminent hospital visit for one of the kids is another (six days for tonsils, thanks to extreme Teutonic cautiousness), and the third is our move to Heidelberg in late January.

We have loved living in the Burg, but now that two out of three kids are at school in town, with the third to join his sisters in September, the move made sense.

So from 2011, I will be reporting to you from here:

(Pic courtesy Michael Urspringer)

With all that’s going on, I make no promises about frequent blogging in January, but I hope you have a fabulous, food-filled festive season and I wish you all the best for success and happiness in 2011.