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Travel and Dine on The Orient Express With Alison Alexandra

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A few days ago, Alison Alexandra unceremoniously ended my chapter. I had planned another week of work to arrive at the ending. She did away with my ending, put in her own, and ignored the intricate back story I had planned.

So, I sat myself down and wondered what would happen in its place. It turns out Alison Alexandra wants to take a vacation, and the one place where she might just get away from herself (as she seems to desire) is the . She previously had a few pages (literally writing-years ago) on the train.

Sounded good enough for me.

A half hour later, the Face Book page for the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express popped up in my feed.

Full steam ahead, think I.

The following is a portion of Alison Alexandra’s previous trip on the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

In the reflection in the glass of her for-the-time-being-stateroom window, Alison Alexandra notices the glances from people on the platform watching her peering, and she doesn’t want to give them any ideas of turning into spies themselves so she stops and turns from the train and continues to walk its length to the engine. Of course, she is looking for spies herself, as befits the aura of the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express. Spies and temptresses and writers and countesses and moustached gentlemen of natty appearance with zee little grey cells working overtime. And criminals and murderers and explorers and adventurers and (no doubt) adulterers and placid businessmen with fettered imaginations and the old wealth and the nouveau rich and folk on the run from the past and folk hoping to run to the past and not once in her complete walk to the engine did she once stop for all those posing to take a Selfie with the Orient Express in the background because – really – if you can’t remember it with your own memory then what’s the point?

She looks up at the engine and realizes that it has never belched billowing smoke and that it never will and she has been prepared for this disappointment – but still. It is a pleasant fantasy as is the whole trip as is the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express itself since the *real* train stopped years ago and even then there had been so many variations with so many destinations that someone could have taken several “Orient Express” trips and travelled on several different routes. In fact, two of the most famous books set on the Orient Express”, Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express and Greene’s Stamboul Train, are set on two different trains, neither of them the “Orient Express”. So Alison Alexandra is not really miffed there is no smoke-belching engine with escaping steam. She can make her own fantasy as others have done before her.

She returns along the platform, rubbing her fingers across the side of the blue-and-gold Waggons-Lits Sleeping Cars. She has kept out of the way of the ceremonial line-ups of the train staff greeting passengers. Enough attention has been paid. She again peers into her compartment window of the S-Series sleeper – slightly smaller and slightly less ornate – more suitable for a sole traveller who plans no assignations. The train is five minutes away from leaving. Alison Alexandra will indeed change for her evening meal. Not all her interests in the fashion of her youth have dissipated. And- after all –she is on the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express. She is not present only for the transportation.

Alison Alexandra wants to blend in and not be either a fashion statement nor a fashion disaster. Black is always the new black, so she enters her Waggon-Lit, enters her compartment, opens a travel case much older than she, and slips into spiffy clothing and accessories that would have allowed her to slip into any of the fantasies of the fantastic Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express with nary a comment of discord but with a nod of appreciation.

In the Etoile du Nord dining car, she has the desire to sit with three other people instead of one. She has made her request known, and will be hailed by a seated trio. She hopes for the best but her anticipation is tinged with a trace of concern. She does not want to be bored, nor does she want to spend the meal warding off unwanted attention. She felt it futile to make such stipulations up front. Sometimes you have to go with the flow.

“Hello.” A face turns up to her. “Are you Missy Alison?”

“Alison Alexandra.”

“I told you so.” Another head turns in her direction. “Your black attire will slide right well into a trio of  three widows.”

“Now, Blanche.” The third voice speaks without raising her head. “We’re sisters first, and widows second.”

“Which one of our husbands would have gone on this trip?”

“True.”

“So that’s why we’re here.”

“Is that why you’re here, Alison Alexandra?” The sister who has yet to look at her now does. “Death allowing you to escape into life?”

“No widow me.” Alison Alexandra looks at each face in turn. “Nor wife neither.”

“Do you still want to sit?”

“Oh, yes.” Alison Alexandra pulls out the final chair. “And as I am the only one in black, might I suppose your widowhoods are not recent.”

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April Fool’s Joke (Except It’s True)

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I glean through many sources (some of them disparate) after information of which agents and which editors have purchased recent books that are similar to one of my manuscripts.
When I find someone I think will be compatible to some of my work, I research them. Then, if I think they would have a reasonable interest in my manuscript (and there can be a variety of reasons) I’ll send a query letter.
I prefer to go through this process of finding names a number of times in a row, instead of finding a compatible person, then immediately sending a query. So, when I find a person I plan to contact, I send this information to myself in an email. It can be weeks before I actually send a query to an agent or editor, and then it can be two or more months before I hear a reply.
Last week I came across the information that John le Carré has a new book coming out the end of this year. I adore John le Carré. This announcement unusually named both his agent and editor. I sent both to myself, and I imagine I would get to them in the next two or three weeks.
This morning, April 1st, I had notification of a rejection by an agent for my NATO Thriller. It was a refusal sent through the portal of the agency (which happens more and more). Since it was not an actual response by the agent, I had to go to my Sent file to see who I had sent the query to.
Uh-huh – it was the same agent as John le Carré. So, I actually got rejected before I sent the query.
Well – anyway – that’s how writers think.
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“The Alexandra” Arrives In Port On Sea And On Page

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I am four hundred pages into my new novel, There was A Time, Oh Pilgrim, When the Stones Were Not So Smooth. In the current chapter I am writing, my main character, Alison Alexandra, is getting a tour on the bridge of The Alexandra.
This is a real ship, and  I have researched the ship over the course of a week. Alison Alexandra wanted to go aboard solely because of its name. However, her expectations of the visit are disappointing, in part to find that real life can not necessarily equal the fantasy about it.

 

I have just seen, in my daily News of the Port, that The Alexandra is arriving in Halifax this afternoon at 15:00. I will be down on the harbour with my binoculars to see her arrive. However, I could actually stay home and see the ship, as it passes through The Narrows at the bottom of my street, on its way to the Fairview Container Terminal.
Perhaps that is what I will do tomorrow, with a coffee in hand, and watch The Alexandra depart.

Kafka In His Writer’s Burrow For World Book Day

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A burrow offers security and comfort, and Kafka found both in his sister’s tiny house on the Golden Lane.

Ottla – his sister – had rented it so she could spend time with her lover and not be bothered by parents and comments. Her lover was a Christian and ready to go to war. Time was precious.

However, she rarely had opportunities other than the weekends, so she offered Franz the use of the tiny house for most of that time. And use it he did, though he never stayed the night.

Through fall, winter and spring Kafka wrote a whole book of short stories. For one single block of time, it was one of his most creative periods.

When I visited, even under Communist rule, it had been converted to a book store. Of course (which he would have appreciated) there were no books by Kafka for sale. Today he is displayed in the windows.

It was only when I went thorough the small rooms, and looked out the window into The Stag Moat, that I realized how important the house would become in my novel about Kafka. It was cozy – even with the space cramped by tourists. It had been little altered and I easily imagined Kafka looking through the same glass and walking through the same doorways. No doubt stooping because he was tall. Research met reality.

One of the last stories Kafka wrote, during his final year in Berlin, was called The Burrow. A version exists and is published, though a longer version is supposed to be among his ‘missing’ papers.

In it, a tiny animal keeps incessantly burrowing to keep away from an enemy. A vague noise convinces the animal to burrow deeper, and deeper, and deeper.

Something Kafka himself attempted to do.

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Getting Published In New York In The Old Days

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Over The Transom

My friend Google tells me that “over the transom” is still a viable term. In this case it refers to a manuscript accepted by an editor submitted cold – perhaps even from the dreaded slush pile.

At any rate, my manuscript for A LOST TALE was accepted “over the transom”, and I was asked to New York to meet the editor. Although I had experienced and appreciated Montréal, Toronto, London, Berlin and other large cities by that time, I had not been to New York. Many events of that trip are memorable, but none more than my “lunch” with the editor.

The editor took me to a dark and trendy place for a late lunch. There were not many people there and, restaurant fiend though I am, the food was not my top priority. Discussion of “the work” and proposed changes was more on the menu for me.

As I sit across the table from my editor, I can not help but notice a man seated by himself beside the wall. He is tieless and shirtless and, though the lighting is dim, what there is reflects from his naked skin. He sits with a beverage and seems to hum to himself.

My editor is discussing both the menu and some confusion he perceives at the beginning of my novel. I note items on the menu unknown to me and am doubly confused.

The shirtless man at the other table increases the volume of his humming and eventually a waiter goes to him and has words. The shirtless man has words back, but they sound like gibberish. At my table the editor suggests something from the menu and I happily comply. There is wine.

Whilst I eat and listen to suggestions, the shirtless man is spoken to by two other waiters. As I (wisely) restrict myself to a second glass of wine, two uniformed policemen enter the restaurant and approach the shirtless man, whose gibberish had increased even more in volume. In the course of a few minutes three other uniformed police officers – one of them female  – arrive on the scene. They are now ranged around the shirtless man and his table. I finally tell my editor what is happening behind him and why I am not concentrating fully upon his suggestions. He turns around.

Two of the officers remove the table from in front of the shirtless man. Two others, one on each side of him, haul him to his feet. It is then that we see his shirtless state continues all the way to his naked feet. The female officer takes the tablecloth from the table and drapes it around him. The four male officers form a circle around the naked, shrouded man uttering his gibberish, and hustle him from the restaurant. The female officer picks up what appears to be a pile of clothes from beneath the table, and a pair of roller skates, and follows them.

I say to my editor that I have never seen anything like that.

My editor concurs.

History, Poetry And Religion In A Cathedral For Evensong

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[Bishop John Medley (John Fredericton)]
Yesterday a writing colleague, Robert Hawkes, launched his poetry book about a Nineteenth Century Anglican Bishop, John Medley. An intriguing aspect of the launch was that it occurred during an Evensong service, in the very cathedral  where Medley had been bishop.

I am so sorry to have missed the event, not just for the book launch, but because it was a part of Evensong.  My interest in this service is explained in the following blog, that I posted last year, around the time of Remembrance Day.

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An evening church service is a favourite of mine – even as a child. However, it has fallen out of favour and is no longer regularly offered.

Trusty Google helped me find one last Sunday. Not only an Evensong, but a Choral Evensong. And not only choral, but it was dedicated as a Remembrance Evensong. I was coming in, out of the cold, in style.

It was held in St. George’s Church – also know as the Round Church for its shape. www.roundchurch.ca

I had been in the church as a tourist, but not for years. A 5pm service in November got me there at dusk. It is a large church, complete with upper balconies. It is close in proximity to the Halifax naval yard, and I wondered if there would be some military presence. As it was, an officer in uniform read a lesson, while a military chaplain gave the sermon.

Not having been to an Evensong for decades, I don’t know if it was a large or small congregation. My guess is there were thirty or so people present, plus 10 in the choir, plus 2 ministers, 1 verger and the organist/choir director.

I would say that Evensong is a modified Morning service, perhaps more fitting for the time of day. In addition to a choral choir singing selections on their own, there were hymns that are favourites of mine. “Oh God, Our Help In Ages Past”  “Abide With Me” and three (3) stanzas of “God Save The Queen”. How close to heaven can one monarchist get?

As an added surprise (which would have made my father ecstatic) it was a High Church Anglican church, and even had incense. Perhaps that explained the choral choir.

At the end, after the procession had left, the large and booming organ belted out a selection by César Franck – Pièce Héroïque“. Members of the choir returned and sat in pews to listen.

When it was completed and people started to leave, I had a tiny ageist and sexist lapse. Two little, white-haired ladies got out of their pew to leave. Walking slowly before me, they talked of the music. I thought they were going to complain about the (admittedly) lengthy organ recital.

“Oh, that music,” said one.

“Yes,” said the other, nodding.

“It’s one of my favourite pieces.”

“I know what you mean.”

100 Years Ago Love Goes So Terribly Wrong For Kafka

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When I wrote my novel, Kafka In The Castle, filling in all of Kafka’s missing diary entries,  after a few months of writing, I found something very interesting. The day/month/year I was writing about, mirrored the day/month/year in which I was writing.

 

For example, if the 03 of July was a Friday in my writing year, it was also Friday, 03 July in 1917.

 

It was an exciting surprise, and made (I think) for more immediate writing.

When Kafka became so ill he he took leave from his employment, he stayed with his sister Ottla in a village, hours from Prague. The following recounts the visit of his fiance,Felice.

 

Here is 23 &24  September from Kafka In The Castle.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

23 September 1917

The trials of Felice. The trials of Franz. As they are put together in this obscure little village – with animals and harvest and the clatter of waggons without.

Because of the war, her train journey an ordeal of thirty hours. Only to reach this destination. This lover who doesn’t …even have the grace to love another.”

That is something F. can understand.

 

24 September 1917

The two days Felice spent here a trial of misery. A trail of misery. Even – I suspect – when she slept.

It is fortunate that I am ill, for it lets her see me in life, the way I am in spirit. The`me’ she would have to fight against. The `me’ which is always opposed to her.

We shared quiet meals, grateful and annoyed by Ottla’s constant chatter. As good a hostess as possible to this strange, sullen couple.

Ottla must have been thankful that her chores took her away as often as they did. I had no such excuses, yet could offer nothing in their place.

F. and I were truly left to each other, and any thoughts she might still have about us getting married must surely be removed.

When we did talk, it was about the change in seasons, the harvest (she took an interest), her work in Berlin. About my health when I seemed to tire (my weariness not all caused by being sick).

We rarely held hands on our walks – just briefly, in the minutes as we returned.

The few kisses were perfunctory.

Not even for memories of things past.

Writer Zombie Meme Takes A New Twist

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I’m not sure why people approach me on the street with the conviction I’m a writer. This has happened a number of times, out – as they say – of the blue. When I ask why they think so, they become defensive. I have learned just to say ‘yes’ and let the conversation meander from there.

Of course, when I give readings or lectures or talks, it is to be expected that I’m a writer. That’s why I’m there. Even if I don’t wear a name tag (which I dislike with passion). I believe I’ve learned not to read too long (regardless of the great material), but I can chat and answer questions about writing until the cows come home to roost. Clichés with a twist a speciality.

In addition to being narrowed-in on as a writer, I have been mistaken for dead authors. In this situation I do believe I must make some comment. For the sake of the dead as well as myself. Although I believe I can still make a good impression as a person who is alive, even here I have run into trouble. A taxi driver did not want to believe that the writer he mistook me for was dead.

“I never heard that,” said he.

“It’s true.”

“Are you sure?”

“He’s been dead for years.”

“You look just like him.”

“Not in his present state,” said I.

The taxi driver did not find me humorous.

A few days ago, however, a new wrinkle was added to my apparent Zombie life.

I was sitting on a park bench,waiting for a bus and watching the bustle of the city pass by. A man of middle years, puffing on a Vapour, settled on a bench across from me. After a few additional puffs, he stated – not asked –

“You’re a writer.”

“Because I’m using a pen?” (which I was, though I was fiddling with sums)

“Who did you write for?”
“Write for?”
“Between 1959 and 1966.”
“What do you mean, ‘who’?”
“Where would I have seen you?”
“Do you know who I am?”
“You know what I mean.”
“I wrote for some newspapers back then.”
“No – not that.”
“But that’s what I did.”
“When you worked for Hemingway.”
“Earnest Hemingway?”
“I’ve read his books?”
“Oh.”
“You edited his books.”
“I did?”
“You were his editor.”
“I would have been too young to be able to do that.”
“What book did you like?”
“Of Hemingway?”
“You know – which one?’
“I’d guess The Old Man And The Sea.”
“People say that. They’re wrong!”
“They are?”
“It’s a terrible book.”
 
To prove there is a God, my bus arrived.
DE

The Mask Of Death Leads To Sundry Places

[Death Mask of the Duke of Wellington]wellington-death-mask

My two gals, Alison Alexandra and her friend, Amanda, are on a sea voyage. A voyage via a freighter, and not a cruise ship. They stop in the ports where the freighter stops, and they take visits of the town if they so desire.

On one of their times on shore, they decide to visit a Police Museum. One of the exhibits is a Death Mask of a hanged murderer. They take great interest in this, noting the repose of the face.

This incident is based on an event in my own life. I melded parts of my experience into my characters afternoon visit during their day ashore. This had not been on my mind when I started this particular chapter.
I once taught a workshop on Supernatural writing. For my workshop I took advantage to take my students on a field trip to see the death mask of a historically known poet. The death mask was conveniently on view in a display case in a near-by building.

None of them had even heard of ‘death masks’, let alone seen one. I invited them to

incorporate the idea into their writing exercises. Some did, some did not.

However, it’s possible this visit to Death elicited the following story from one of my students.

My student and her husband had purchased a new house. Cleaning and renovations eventually took them to the back loft area, which was piled high with decades of accumulated detritus from a long life.

They cleared out beds, and boxes and newspaper piles, and magazines, and bundles of clothes, and on and on. Near the end of this process, my student noticed a “clump of something” on one of the wooden beams of the loft.

Getting ladder and flashlight, her husband climbed to see what it was.

It was the end of a number of knotted bed sheets.

DE

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