Frieze Sculpture

I went to see the sculpture exhibition in Regent’s Park. It’s worth a look: most of the pieces are a bit jokey (in a good way), but Sim and the Yellow Glass Birds is quite poignant. I liked the fake park signs: I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see one on the cover of a philosophical text one day.

Rime

We saw a performance of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, with selected music by Purcell, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Rory Kinnear did an excellent delivery of the poem, while the music came from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, memorably including a theorbo, a kind of gigantic lute.

In some ways it was an odd combination, as the poem is obviously not contemporary with Purcell. It worked pretty well, though: perhaps it helped that Coleridge’s poem is self-consciously archaic in manner – something that made it an uncomfortable inclusion in the Lyrical Ballads when first published, as that was supposed to demonstrate poetry in ordinary language. The content of the Rime doesn’t really bear much examination, but it is full of powerful images and phrases, which explains its enduring popularity.

Eureka Day

We went to see ‘Eureka Day’ at the Old Vic. Originally produced in 2018 in the USA, it’s about a very progressive, liberal community in Berkeley attached to a school coping (or not) with an outbreak of mumps and conflicts over vaccination. Those issues have gained extra relevance since, of course. The first half is very funny, with a lot of affectionate but sharp parody of how ‘right-thinking’ people get tangled up in discussions of such matters as whether to add an entry to a drop-down menu on ethnicity to cover ‘trans-ethnic adoptee’, and an online discussion that goes badly wrong. I think many Guardian-reading members of the audience enjoyed recognising themselves and their friends (though there were gasps of horror when anti-vax points were made).

The second half gets more serious, as we hear of children seriously ill and worse. Things perhaps get a bit schematic here, with things happening to people in order to provide clear motives for their views. But it’s pretty fair (as poor Don, who keeps trying to lead discussion in positive directions says, ‘nobody in this room is a villain!’) and it remains both engaging and amusing as well as setting out the issues. Lots of nice little touches.

The cast, including Helen Hunt and Mark McKinney, are very good, and I recommend it.

October 2022 contests

Here are the writing competitions I might enter with deadlines in October. 

  • The American Literary Review wants stories up to a generous 8,000 words. Entry is $15 and the top prize is $1,000. Deadline 1 October.
  • The Tennessee Williams and New Orleans Literary Festival has a word limit which is only slightly lower at 7,000, and their deadline is the same.. Besides $1,500, the top prize includes a pass to the festival with accommodation and air fare within the USA. Entry is $25.
  • Dillydoun will also accept up to 8,000 words, and entry is again $25, but their top prize is a full $5,000. The contest closes on 2 October.
  • With Zoetrope we’re down to the still-generous limit of 5,000 words. Entry is $30, top prize $1,000 and the deadline is 11 October.
  • You have a bit more time to polish your entry for the Calvino prize, for stories in the magic realist spirit of Italo Calvino (and if you haven’t read him, you really should). Entries can be up to 25 pages long, it’s $25 to enter and you could win $3,000. Oh, and the deadline is 15 October.
  • At last a British competition, from Galley Beggar Press, with a maximum word count of 6,000, an entry fee of £10, and first prize of £2,500. Deadline 16 October.
  • Omnidawn want longer pieces: between 7,500 and 17,500 words: they must be fabulist in character. Entry is $18 and the top prize is $1,000: the deadline is 17 October.
  • The Eyelands prize has several categories, including collections of prose or poetry up to 250 pages long. Winners get a week in Athens and a specially-made ceramic. Entry is €22 and the deadline is 20 October.
  • Creative Mind is an organisation that has apparently been around since the seventies, but this is its first writing competition (its website still has some rough edges too, with posts labelled ‘example blog post’ and bits of lorem ipsum style boilerplate text). Stories of up to 1,500 words must be on the theme ‘travel’: entry is £3 and the prize £50. Deadline 26 October.
  • Writefluence offers only publication, but then the entry fee is only INR 150 (currently about £1.66). There’s a 3,000 word maximum and the deadline is 30 October.

The rest of the list have a deadline of 31 October (but see below).

  • The Bedford competition has a limit of 3,000 words, an entry fee of £7.50 and a prize of £1,000.
  • SaveAs (which always sounds like a discount store to me) wants stories on the theme ‘Myth’. Up to 3,500 words, entry £3, prize £200.
  • Letter Review wants up to 2,000 words: entry $20, prize $650.
  • Fiction Factory is back, asking for maximum 3,000 words, with a fee of £7 and a prize of £500.
  • Sheila-Na-Gig wants literary pieces (A Sheila Na Gig is an obscene carving of a woman, often found on early medieval churches. Probably not a clue to what you should write about, though.), up to 5,000 words, entry $3, prize $100
  • Southport Writer’s Circle want up to 2,000 words, entry £3, prize £200

Finally a special mention for Globe Soup’s Historical Fiction Challenge.. To enter you buy a ticket of your chosen colour – this determines the period in which your story must be set (it doesn’t need to be historical in any stronger sense). You can try more than one colour and some hardy souls have bought them all. 4,000 words, entry fee £12 (£2.50 or £15 if early or late): prize £1,000, deadline 28 October. I single it out because Globe Soup is constantly running writing challenges and contests, many free, on its two Facebook sites (one completely free, the other for those who have entered a paid competition). They have a lively and supportive community going where you can always get feedback and advice, and it’s well worth checking out.

If you get somewhere with any of the contests above, do let me know!

Ian McEwan

We went to see Ian McEwan talk about his new book ‘Lessons’. Quite interesting. At one point, talking about the appeal of music he spoke of ’the relief from meaning’ – unexpected from a novelist! Just need to read the book now.

The Books of Jacob

Jacob Frank

The main problem with this book is obvious at first sight: it is just too big! Olga Tokarczuk is a great writer and no doubt deserved her Nobel Prize. I was looking forward to reading this one because I enjoyed her book Flights, a strange, fragmentary, but very readable and amusing meditation on travel and curiosity. The Books of Jacob also has an interesting subject: it tells the historical story of Jacob Frank, the eighteenth century leader of a Jewish cult that picked up on the legacy of Rabbi Sabbatai Tzvi. Tzvi (as Tokarczuk spells him – ‘Zevi’ is a more pronounceable version) was a self-proclaimed Messiah who converted to Islam under duress. Many of his followers, rather than giving up on him, assumed that they were to follow his lead, converting either sincerely or just outwardly. Frank’s followers, somewhat similarly, were instructed to reject the Talmud and undergo Christian baptism, though it seems, according to this account, that they secretly practised scandalous rituals of their own devoted to the principle of purification through sin. The book relates their struggles with the authorities in several countries and with unconverted Jews, the help and indulgence they sometimes got from Christians impressed by the possibility of bringing hundreds of Jews into the church; Jacob’s imprisonment in Częstochowa, his release and last years living like an aristocrat in Offenbach. It seems to be a largely accurate historical account, the main exception being the character Yente. Yente, a sick old woman, is given a charm to wear which will keep her alive until a family wedding is complete, but she swallows it, becoming an immortal spirit who watches the lives of her family thereafter. She could have been a handy way of telling the story, but in fact only gets an occasional mention.

The book is well written, but it tells the story in immense detail, never cutting out episodes or characters that seem relatively peripheral or inconsequential. Many letters are given in full, long letters between minor characters discussing, for example, whether it is better to write in Latin or the vernacular. The letters are highly plausible in terms of characterisation and history, and they were probably enjoyable to write, but they add even more length to a text which is already radically oversized (I think it should have been no more than about a quarter of its actual length). Finishing the book, I’m afraid, honestly becomes a bit of a slog.

The thing is, long books can be easily readable if they are really interesting. What I wanted to know here was what on Earth motivated these serious, thoughtful Jews to accept Jacob as divinely inspired, rejecting their own heritage and ethical standards? Some of the things they do – deliberately triggering a pogrom against their Jewish enemies by accusing them of murdering Christian children for their blood, for example – seem unforgivable. Alas, that core issue remained a mystery to me while more and more detail of events piled up.

I can’t therefore recommend the book – but have a go at Flights if you want to know what’s so great about Tokarczuk.