The Gift of Gardam
THE DILEMMA OF MY DESIRES: OR THE BALANCE BETWEEN
KEEPING A BRILLIANT WRITER MY SECRET
AND KNOWING SHE OUGHT TO BE SHARED
by Cherise Wolas
I adore discovering wonderful writers who are unknown to most. I hoard my discoveries, keep them close to my heart while I devour all of their novels and story collections. Some years ago, after gifting several thousand books to the New York Public Library, I developed a new strategy: I would use the library for first-reads, and if I found myself entranced, I would purchase the actual book, preferably from an indie bookstore. In my study, where I write, the bookshelves are now largely filled only with the novels, novellas, and collections that I want to keep, material I return to because of the gorgeous writing, material I find aspirational in story and sentence construction.
I have long possessed the ability to ferret out these secret gems, though I’m not sure how or why. I maintain a treasure chest, a log of the books I read, month by month, title and author’s name. Sometimes I am pleased to share my secrets with the serious readers in my immediate world and writers I am close to, but more often than not, I find myself in a strange conundrum.
When a writer I have discovered is discovered by the greater American world, when a sudden rash of articles and reviews about their work appears—no matter how many years they have been writing, or how many novels and collections they have published, or how well-known they might be in their own countries—I end up rather ticked off. At least in the US, these treasured writers belong mostly to me alone. When notice is paid to them here, I feel as if something has been stolen from me, fearful that the intense connection I have with that writer’s work will loosen, fretful that others will fail to fully understand the gloriousness of the material. And yet, as a serious reader and writer, I do want the work discovered, because I want readers to read the great stuff.
I felt that way about Karl Ove Knausgaard. When I discovered him, there were not yet articles and reviews about his six-volume work. He had not yet been asked to write an article for The New York Times Magazine. There were no jokes of Knausgaard-free zones in Scandinavian offices. Now he is everywhere. See His Struggle: One Man’s Successful Attempt to Turn His Life into Art.
Because I feel the storm clouds gathering which, in a presage of articles, interviews, and critiques, will reveal a gem of a writer who belongs mostly to me alone right now, I have decided to write about my latest find. Jane Gardam is a British writer, now in her ninetieth decade. Although lauded and well-known in England, she remains an unfamiliar name to much of the American reading public. Just the kind of writer I adore discovering.
As a child, Gardam knew she would be a writer. She has said, “[i]t just seemed the only sensible thing to do,” and scribbled her stories in secret. It wasn’t until her children were in school that she began to write with intent and purpose. Her first book, A Long Way From Verona, was published when she was in her late thirties. It is designated a children’s book, a label I find limiting and inaccurate.
It features a young girl, likely similar to Jane Gardam, and opens with “I ought to tell you at the beginning that I am not quite normal, having had a violent experience at the age of nine.”
Jessica Vye, along with the rest of her school, has listened to a revered writer read from bits and pieces of his work. When the presentation concludes, Jessica races home, gathers up all of her own writings, and arrives at the train station in time to hand the author, Mr. Arnold Hanger, a packet of her stories. When the Vye family’s house has been packed up, father, mother, little brother, and Jessica in the car, about to move to another part of England—her father transforming himself from school headmaster to minister—Jessica is handed a letter that has just arrived for her. It is from Mr. Hanger wherein he writes the magical sentence that every aspiring writer would want to receive:
JESSICA VYE YOU ARE A WRITER
BEYOND ALL POSSIBLE DOUBT!
Although Jessica comes to realize that Hanger may not much be much of a writer himself, his prediction of her abilities proves true, and colors her perception of her life and world. The book is a vibrant and wise portrait of an adolescent in the act of specific self-discovery.
Since the publication of A Long Way From Verona, Gardam has become one of the most prolific writers of her generation, with twenty-five books in thirty years and a number of prestigious prizes to her name. Among other honors, she is the only writer to have twice been awarded Britain’s prestigious Costa (formerly Whitbread) Award for Best Novel of the Year.
Perhaps I respond to her work because her fiction often is concerned with the child’s view, the memories that squirrel into a human being and are carried through the years. My own work is frequently motivated by a character’s childhood—the memories, hurts, fears, and all the rest—and how that manifests in adulthood, the character’s view of the world, his or her place within it, and the actions they often take that unleash hurt upon others as a result. I relate to Gardam in two additional ways: I, too, think that writing seems the only sensible thing to do, and, like her, I found serious literature very early in my life and reveled in the ability of words and stories to place me somewhere new, to make extant a world of which I was not yet aware.
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