Eddie and Me by David Frankel



David Frankel writes about his story ‘Beneath the Melting Snow’ in Unthology 8 and his fascination with Edvard Munch.


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For me, art and fiction have always been bound closely together. For a large part of my life I was an artist (in between writing stories, I still am) and the painter, Edvard Munch, has been with me from the start of things. He moved in shortly after my teenage obsession with fantasy illustration and record covers ended, and he’s been here ever since.


It was my interest in his work that led to my earliest explorations into ‘serious’ fiction. In his lifetime, he associated with and was influenced by, a number of writers, and sometime in my teenage years I began to get curious about the names that kept cropping up: Strindberg, Ibsen, Hamsun…


I remember the surprise on the face of the local librarian when I asked for a copy of Hamsun’s ‘Hunger’. She had to go into the basement of the library to find it. It was a book that hadn’t been checked out for many years before that (appropriately) rainy afternoon. After that, I would present lists of obscure books to the librarian on a semi-regular basis. So, I can blame Eddie for my early taste in dark, melodramatic prose.


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He is, of course, best known for the overblown expressionism of ‘The Scream’, but he was a prolific painter whose best work is full of subtlety and poetry. He was the first artist to make himself (his own life and psyche) the subject of his work – all of his work – even the pictures that seem, on first impression, to be of landscapes or other people.


Given our long standing relationship, I might be asking myself why it has taken me twenty-five years to write about him, but the truth is that I was, am, nervous about portraying a real historical figure. Munch is a well-known and well-loved artist, and there are a number of excellent biographies about him as well as translations of his own journals. A lot of people know his work, some even know about his life, so there was always the risk that my version of his life would clash with the version in their minds. That said, fiction can make people ‘real’ in a way that a biography cannot; it is a great vehicle for exploring the question, ‘What makes people do what they do?’ The facts of a life are not what attracts us to a person, or repels us. The success, or failure, of a story depends on its emotional truth.


Emotional truth or not, there was no way that I could get away with ignoring the facts of Munch’s life. My past interest in his biographical details related only to his paintings and the information needed to understand them. The research for ‘Beneath the Melting Snow’ took me to areas of his life I had never paid attention to; the minutiae of his life and, most importantly, his relationships with other people. I did a lot of research – I’m a bit of a history geek anyway and I enjoyed it – it’s like real work but with a lot more tea drinking and sitting around reading and looking at pictures. Actually, photographs were as important as written sources. It’s amazing how much information is in the background of a snapshot when you really look. The flotsam and jetsam of life tell you a lot about how somebody lives, where they lived, who the people around them were…


Discussing the problems of writing fiction based on historical figures Hilary Mantel wrote, ‘For a novelist, this absence of intimate material is both a problem and an opportunity…’, but Munch left a lot of very intimate material. He wrote extensively about his experiences and feelings in a series of journals, however, I soon discovered that many of his own descriptions of events in his life were written a long time after they occurred, and discrepancies between his accounts and those of others was not uncommon.


We are all unreliable narrators of our own lives – my own forays into autobiography barely survived the opening paragraphs before I was lying through my teeth – but reading Munch’s journals I couldn’t help feeling that they had been written to create an impression. He often wrote about himself in the third person, he was overly dramatic, he omitted unpleasant truths, and gave unbalanced accounts of arguments; exactly what I would have done. And to undermine his reliability a little more, he drank. A lot.


Munch famously said, ‘Disease, insanity, and death were the angels that attended my cradle, and since then have followed me throughout my life’. This was certainly true and he was clearly deeply affected by the things that happened to him, and he took even trivial events very personally. His journals are melodramatic to say the least, but he was, I think, very conscious of his place in the history of art, and the need to create a myth around himself. He was well aware that after his death, scholars would study every word he had written. Myth making aside, he wanted to explain himself. Explain his work.


The parameters of the story were defined – it clearly had to fit with the known facts of Munch’s life, but I think the act of facing concrete detail forces me to up my game. I felt like I was not so much inventing a story as excavating one. To a certain degree, Eddie had set the tone for me too: he never played it for laughs.


As a writer, and as an artist, the single thing that interests me most is memory, and Munch more than any other artist I know had memory at the core of his work. I don’t know what came first: Was I fascinated by Munch’s work because of my interest in memory, or did I form an interest in memory because of my Munch obsession?


Memories are what make us who we are. They are the filter through which we see ourselves and the world, but memory is mutable. Each time we recall something, we do it as a function of the present. We recall the remembered events in the light of things that have happened since we stored them away. Context is everything with memories, and that makes them beautifully unreliable. For a story writer, this is a gift. When I’m writing, I try to reflect how memory works, allowing two ideas or moments in time to sit together even though in reality they may be separated by many years – a chain of association rather than a chronological record.


Reading biographies about Munch, I found my attention was drawn to certain events that seemed key to his emotional life; hubs around which other aspects of his life moved – that grew in importance as I mapped out the minutiae of his life. I had to consider why those events stood out and what they meant, like following trail of clues. It’s all about the relationship between the character’s past and present – memory and consequence. If I’m being honest, I can’t separate the events that were genuinely important to him from events that seemed important to me, but, I suppose, that’s the crucial difference between fiction and non-fiction when it comes to biographical writing.


The structure of ‘Beneath the Melting Snow’ was, in part, suggested by Munch’s work. His sequence of paintings known as ‘The Frieze of Life’, depict a series of scenes, individual paintings, that each have meaning in themselves, but work together as a whole. I wanted to make a short story which in some way created the impression of a life. These vignettes, allowed me to show the distinctly separate eras, in what was a very long and full life, and build them into a larger whole just as he did in his ‘Frieze’.


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There is a very moving series of self-portraits by Munch, painted in the years before his death. It includes a painting called ‘Night Wanderer’ which shows him as a frail old man wandering through his own house as though he is a stranger there, leaning forward to peer into ‘the camera’. In his later years he suffered from insomnia and often painted into the early hours, working in a studio that he deliberately kept filled with the paintings he had spent his life making. He refused to sell many of these works, choosing to make copies to satisfy clients. By then, he had outlived most of the subjects of his paintings and all but one of his close family. This is how I always picture Eddie; surrounded by memories that he had created as much recorded. Living with ghosts.

David Frankel. 2016

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David Frankel’s ‘Beneath the Melting Snow’ is the first story in Unthology 8, available from all good booksellers, WOrdery, Book Depository and for Kindle and iDevices.

Return to Project U



Launch of Unthology 8 and Readings from ‘Between Here and Knitwear’ by Chrissie Gittins and ‘Country Life’ by Ken Edwards.


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Project U: The Unthank Prose Event returns for 2016’s first foray on February 4th with the launch party for ‘Unthology 8’ and readings from ‘Between Here and Knitwear’ and ‘Country Life ‘by Ken Edwards, two fantastic titles we published back in November.


Readers:

Sarah Bower from ‘Between Here and Knitwear’ by Chrissie Gittins


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Ashley Stokes from ‘Country Life’ by Ken Edwards


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Unthology 8


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Victoria Briggs
FC Malby
Andre Van Loon
Amanda Mason


‘Loved it, loved it, loved it. What can they possible do in Unthology 8?’
Our Book Reviews.

Project U: The Unthank Prose Event: “The readings are consistently excellent and there are always new people to meet. A thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining evening every time.”

February 4th, 7.30pm, Upstairs at The Library Restaurant, 4A Guildhall Hill, Norwich, NR2 1JH, FREE

Unthank’s Books of the Year



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Do you rush out and buy a new book as soon it’s published? Do you read a review, drop everything and have to read that book right this second? Or, do books hang around in stacks for ages until they reach the top of your pile or you discover the right mood? Do you follow your interests and obsessions, or are you led by PR?


Rather than ask our authors and editors to list their favourite books published in 2015, instead we asked them about the books they actually read.


Lynne Bryan


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“I love reading but usually have to fit it in at the end of a long day, so I read in bed for about fifteen minutes before I fall asleep which means I make slow progress. But I have managed to read more than five books this year and my favourite five out of the lot are:

1 – 4 Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quadrilogy: big fat books which steam along, complex and engaging, about life in a poor district in Naples, about female friendship and sexual politics and belonging. Utterly brilliant.

5 Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: a wise, humane exploration of how medical advances have changed – and not for the better – how most of us die in the Western World.

Lynne Bryan is a novelist and co-organiser of Words & Women .


Words and Women: Two was published by Unthank Cameo in March.


Ken Edwards

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Only one of these five is recently published (and none actually in 2015).

Helen Macdonald: H is for Hawk
I knew Helen years ago as a fine poet, if rather diffident in public. Her only poetry collection in print, so far as I know, is Shaler’s Fish, published by the excellent Etruscan Books. This prose memoir, focused on her taming of a goshawk, is an exploration of wildness and conformity, belonging, loss and grief – done with intelligence and wit. Definitely not just for people interested in falconry (though you learn a lot about that, too).

Fyodor Dostoevsky: The Eternal Husband and Other Stories
Digging into the more obscure Dostoevsky – prompted by my partner, who has recently been reading everything she can by him. The title story is wonderful, about a man pursued by the husband of a deceased woman he once had an affair with. ‘A Nasty Anecdote’, about a senior bureaucrat who decides, while drunk, to drop in uninvited on the wedding celebration of a menial employee, is painfully funny.

Paul Ableman: I Hear Voices
I have my friend John Muckle to thank for this: he devotes space to Paul Ableman in Little White Bull, his book about British fiction in the 50s and 60s. I dimly remember meeting Ableman many years ago, and reading one of his other novels. To quote John, this one “is a novel about consciousness in that it has a first person narrator and most of the action takes place in his head”. It is strongly implied that the unreliable narrator is schizophrenic. The novel was first published by Olympia Press and has something in common with French surrealism, simultaneously making complete sense and no sense at all.

WH Hudson: Green Mansions
Hudson is a writer I have a lot of affinity with, although he’s a bit out of fashion now. He was a naturalist as well as a novelist – a Brit who grew up in Argentina, then re-immigrated to England. While helping edit a new edition of his collection of short stories, El Ombu, I finally read this, the only one of his major books I’d not got around to before. And I think it’s his masterpiece. It’s one of the South American novels, a tragic fable which, like Helen Macdonald’s book, is about wildness and civilisation.

Douglas Woolf: Fade Out
First read this 30 years ago. Like the previous two, Woolf is a writer who has dropped out of public favour. Unlike some of my passions of yesteryear, this stands up. Mr Twombly is a retired bank manager who escapes, with his ex-boxer friend, Behemoth Brown, from the care home his family have dumped him in, preferring a life on the road. Brilliant, comic, poetic writing, and though the treatment is ostensibly realistic, the background is eerie: the 1950s America immortalised in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I think.

Ken Edwards’ novel Country Life was published by Unthank Books in November. For more about him, and his other books, click here.


Lander Hawes


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1) Cormac McCarthy. Blood Meridian. Picador.
This year I decided to break open Cormac McCarthy’s oeuvre, starting with Blood Meridian. It became one of those reads that reduced me to the role of a quivering bystander, as a writer of substantial genius systematically deployed the full array of literary tactics and devices, of ruses and ploys. This is a novel bright with primary colours, garish with scarlet blood and bleached-orange desert landscapes; these studded with collapsed churches and inhabited by maimed, poorly-armed soldiers. It’s a story about civilisation and degeneration, where even the candles lapse. Responding to Blood Meridian as a writer, what comes across is the extent to which McCarthy rides roughshod over literary niceties such as narrative balance and moderation. It’s as if he’s constantly dipping his hands into huge buckets of talent and pelting honking gobs of it at the reader. For me, one of the best features is his fresh imagining of the Native American braves, festooned in mirrored necklaces and rusting conquistador armour, always nascent beyond an unsteady and shifting horizon.

2) Joanna Walsh. Vertigo. The Dorothy Project.
Joanna Walsh’s work has been quietly attracting attention for a couple of years, and Vertigo is a stylised and outstanding collection. The fictions tend to be constituted around an event in which the reader slips into step with a protagonist whose habitual, burdensome sense of self has momentarily lessened, and the present is made acutely present as a sobering, unsentimental perspective is gained. Walsh excels at teasing out these transient spells of clarity, often occurring in travel, when a character is abroad or is otherwise at distance from their ordinary circumstances. She is adept at articulating consciousness, and has a refined sense of the limitations of character and narrative in the short form. I think I’ll be reading all her published work.

3) Ben Lerner. 10:04. Granta.
This is a contemporary novelist pursuing, in a modest and intelligent way, the kinds of objectives that have always drawn me to fiction; namely, an attempt to render and mediate the particular texture of his subjective reality. It seems like an obvious and commonplace way for a writer to proceed, but in the current commercial climes managing to find a novel which prioritises the presenting of experience as filtered through even a vaguely discerning sensibility is pretty difficult to find. The responses and sensitivities of Ben’s protagonist are wholly recognisable, as he proceeds as best he can, buffeted and unspared by external forces and subject to the internal pressures of loyalty and conscience.

4) Ben Marcus. Leaving the Sea. Granta.
Thankfully Granta are publishing Ben Marcus in the UK, otherwise we’d be deprived of exposure to this exceptional writer and thinker about writing. What I like most about his work are the directions in which his extreme sensitivities to the nuances of language take him. In his novel ‘The Flame Alphabet’ language and even communicative acts become literally toxic as Marcus drives and expands the premise, whilst in ‘Leaving the Sea’ stories are presented which are, as much as anything else, spaces for Marcus to grapple with and deny familiar discourse, and where he tends to innovate his phrasing to an extraordinary degree rather than settle for the least-loaded term. Marcus has an innate understanding of the role that writers can play in refreshing a language and I’d say some of his work is groundbreaking.

5) William Dalrymple. From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium. Flamingo.
The reader follows Dalrymple, in the mid 90’s, through a series of meetings with Eastern Orthodox Christians in Eastern Turkey, Northern Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt and Greece. The books becomes a fascinating snapshot of this religious minority at a time when a movement towards religious fundamentalism and Islamic orthodoxy was gaining ground in the Near East, and the kind of secular, tolerant European values which had been present for much of the 20th century were on the wane. To read this book now is to see warning signs of radical Islam on virtually every page. It’s also incredibly interesting about Orthodox Christian culture, describes the author’s encounters with relics on a par with Indiana Jones, and is a treasure chest of stories about monks that lived atop pillars in antiquity, and be-loin clothed beardy types. Beat that.

Lander Hawes’ novel Captivity was published by Unthank Books in 2012.


Robin Jones


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Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (Abacus 1997). I didn’t think this would live up to the enormous hype but in mitigation he did commit suicide at the top of a surge to authorial fame which is always likely to inflate any available hype. Regardless, I found it so in tune with my taste it was actually a shock. It’s very unusual and unlike anything else I’ve read. Part unflinching analysis of addiction, part hilarious satire, part pedantic observation of minutiae – it felt like a science fiction story set right now if that’s possible. Some of the thoughts in it I doubt will be bettered in my lifetime. Cliché to say it but I found it pure genius and yearn to devour the rest of his ouevre.

Daniel Martin by John Fowles (Jonathan Cape 1977). I fancied a challenge and wondered why this wasn’t quite as famous as his Magus or French Lieutenant’s Woman. It’s probably a little too long and a tad over-indulgent in parts but its aims are noble, aiming to pinpoint emotions and unpick complexities in romantic relationships. It largely achieves this however I didn’t warm to the characters as much as I would have liked so in the end was slightly relieved it was over. A very interesting exercise…..so perhaps not strictly suitable for ‘one of the best’ but I am limited by the amount of published books as opposed to scripts I get to read so it has to make my list.

Plainsong, Benediction and Eventide by Kent Haruf (Picador 1999-2013). I was completely bowled over by this trilogy of extreme pared down simplicity. Haruf has managed to trim language down almost to a ridicuous extent and I thought it would become highly poetic in the process but it doesn’t. It becomes a sort of pure prose. He only describes the essential facts and not a lot of those, and yet the effect conjured knocked me off my feet. I cried and cried at one particular tragedy and believed the characters totally exist and will be remembered always. I have his other work ready and waiting. Congratulations to his editor Gary Fisketjon at Picador US!

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick de Witt (Granta 2011). Oh this was such good entertainment! A masterclass in how literary can do this every bit as well as commercial. Very funny and dark and visceral but conveyed with a light and masterly touch. A book that scores and skewers the Western genre and I want more!

Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges (New Directions 1962). As an editor of UNTHOLOGY I love learning about shorter fiction and reading its best exponents. I had never read the book that arguably gave birth to postmodernism, deconstructionism and magical realism, concepts that I’ve grown up with and have dominated my literary language but until this point had never truly ‘felt’. I preferred One Hundred Years of Solitude as magical realism and possibly found this a bit ‘forced’ in parts to make a point but nevertheless: mind-blowing.

Robin Jones is Unthank Books’ publisher.


David Madden


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Although I have written a novel, or more correctly half a novel (The Mystery of Edwin Drood, published by Unthank Books in 2011, and republished with a handsome new cover by Gracie Carver in 2015), I mainly read non-fiction. This reflects both my background (former diplomat with a special interest in South East Europe, and senior member of St Antony’s College Oxford) and particular interests (animal welfare).


The five books I have most enjoyed reading in 2015 fall into three broad categories. A couple tell the tale of two of the four Empires which imploded during and after the Great War: The Fall of the Ottomans by Eugene Rogan, and Towards the Flame by Dominic Lieven, chronicling the end of Tsarist Russia. Both are detailed and gripping. Lieven reminds us of the irony that a War which began more than anything else as the struggle between the Germanic powers and Russia to control east-central Europe ended in the defeat of both sides. Both volumes connect with a book I am co-editing for publication early next year, telling the largely untold story of the consequences of the War for the region which ignited it: Balkan Legacies of the Great War: the Past is Never Dead.


Two others take humankind as their theme: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, and Steve Hilton’s More Human. Harari provides brilliant definitions of physics, chemistry, biology and history in his first eight sentences and the pace never slackens. It was described by one reviewer as a “starburst” of a book. It is correctly highly critical of the treatment of animals, and especially of farm animals, by Homo Sapiens. Hilton is mainly concerned to argue for bringing our world down to a more human scale; but human beings get a deserved broadside for their treatment of animals, especially in factory farms.


And finally, a novel. And what a novel! In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust: unapproached and indeed unapproachable in terms of scale and writing. I have been promising myself for some time the pleasure of reading the definitive translation by Scott Moncrieff/Kilmartin/Enright: the three providing successive layers of translation and improvement incorporating new material. Enright charmingly quotes Kilmartin on the danger of the latecomer assuming the beau role ; and in this case the result of their labours over time (that word again) is a masterpiece: though Proust’s treatment of “The Prisoner” has its longueurs. I am leaving the sixth and final volume, “Time Regained”, for a triumphant conclusion in 2016.