Showing posts with label Clementine Beauvais. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Clementine Beauvais. Show all posts

Monday, 28 October 2019

Childly perceptions - 2 - Clémentine Beauvais

In last month's post I talked about those childly perceptions friends tell us about, and I got some lovely comments - thank you, Susan, Sue and Brenda! (Sue: I meant this by door closers!).

Sue also commented:

'I thought that when you grew up, there was automatically a World War, because My grandparents had one when they grew up, and so did my parents. Jolly, eh!'

Jolly indeed, and it reminded me of two more childly perceptions I hadn't mentioned:

The ineluctable kidnapping

When I was a child, I was convinced all children got kidnapped at some point in their lives. It was the 1990s, in France and Belgium a time marked by the terrifying, and enormously mediatised, abductions and subsequent deaths of a number of young girls by Belgian kidnapper Marc Dutroux. I was hardly ever allowed outside, we had endless stranger-danger type talks, short TV programmes, classroom discussions, etc. Clearly, I heard so much about the whole thing that I ended up thinking at the same time that it was an inevitable fact of life, yet that it was my duty to somehow avoid it when - rather than if - it happened.

The terror lasted well into my teens, and I wasn't the only one. In fact my closest friend was so scared of being kidnapped, too, that at the age of 14 or so, she confided in her psychologist about it (she was seeing a child psychologist for other, though not entirely disconnected, reasons). The dialogue, as she recounted it to me, went something like this:

Friend: When I walk down the pavement, I'm scared of walking on the curb side, because a car might pull in, open a door and take me. But I'm scared of walking too close to the buildings, because then a door might open there and take me.

Psychologist: I think you should walk bang in the middle.

We do find it funny today, but I remember that at the time we took that advice extremely seriously.

The Eternal German War

A friend of mine, as progressive and liberal left as anyone, was walking down the street with his then-5-year-old daughter, and suddenly the child said, pointing at a homeless lady: 'She should just go back to her country!' My friend, horrified to hear that, proceeded to tell his daughter that it was an extremely cruel and unfair thing to say; I don't know who's put that idea in your head, he said, but [cue long clumsy impromptu political lesson about economic inequalities more or less tailored for 5-year-olds].

'Plus', he added, 'not everyone's got a country to go back to even if they wanted to, you know! Maybe this lady comes from a country that is at war.'

Upon which, the five-year-old gravely nodded. 'Ah!...' she said, struck with sudden, empathetic understanding. 'Germany...'

I actually love those two childly perceptions because they interpelate us as children's authors too - where could they possibly have got the idea that Germany is permanently at war and that being kidnapped as a child is something like a fact of life?

Sue's comment also shows how much childly perceptions are generationally variable, and I wonder what childly perceptions are developing as we speak. What are today's tiny kids believing about the world, about themselves?

About door closers?

Clémentine Beauvais is a writer and literary translator. Her YA novels in English are Piglettes (Pushkin, 2017) and In Paris with You (trans. Sam Taylor, Faber, 2018). She has also written a picturebook illustrated by Maisie Paradise Shearring, Hello, Monster! (Thames and Hudson, 2018).

Sunday, 20 October 2019

Distracted - Joan Lennon

Charlie Chaplin in Pay Day (1922)
(wiki commons)

I am at the two thirds stage of writing a novel, and I am in the sludge.  I recognise this stage.  I know it's just a question of slogging on through.  I am not enjoying the slog.  And I am in the throes of excessive distractability.  So when I saw an article online on Nir Eval's theories about the nature of distraction, I downed tools and had a read.  (Okay, if I'm honest, I read a bit, got distracted, came back and read a bit more, got distracted ...)

I don't buy the whole package Nir Eyal is proposing - for example, I think that not everything we do is "prompted by the desire to escape discomfort." "It's pain all the way down" is not my kind of mantra.  But the nub of the argument - that distraction doesn't start with the technology out there - it starts with us - I certainly recognised.  

"We use these devices as psychological pacifiers as we are looking for an escape from uncomfortable sensations. And if we don't deal with that fact, we will always find distraction somewhere."

Part of dealing with that fact might be to find out what other people are saying about distraction.  There have been, for example, excellent ABBA posts on the topic - have a visit, for example, to Chitra Soundar's Seven Habits of a Highly Distracted Writer, Clementine Beauvais' On Not Trusting Your Future Self, or Andrew Strong's How to Be Creative.  (Go on - it's an educational and entertaining way of not getting down to, you know, the writing.)

But, yup, this distractability I acknowledge mine, to paraphrase the Bard.  Also, I have no magic cure.  I still have to do the slog, in order to get past the sludge.  I break it down into baby steps, use the timer, mark up every 100 words achieved, give myself tons of tiny treats, and distract the other people in the house who are also trying to write/draw with corking* challenges.

This too shall pass.  (Off now to find out where that comes from ...)

* Corking is a not-quite-yet-Olympic sport where you try to throw Prosecco corks into an empty cat food box from a distance.  Feelings run high.  It is eminently distracting.

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.

Saturday, 28 September 2019

Childly perceptions - Clémentine Beauvais

I love listening to friends telling me memories from their childhood, especially when those memories tell us something of the weird, uncanny, otherworldly perceptions that children have of the world.

I know neuroscience says we can have no reliable childhood memories, that everything is a reconstruction, filtered through romantic and adult-focused visions of childhood. I think it's BS, by the way, but even if it were true, then my friends' (and my) memories of childhood would still have poetic value. Either way, they have things to teach us, I think, about how to write about and for children.

Here's a little collection:

A friend told me she thought her mother was a witch every time she brushed her hair. Hair-brushing was so painful that there was no way her kind, sweet mother could possibly be the one inflicting that pain. Therefore, during that particular time of the day, a witch took her mother's place, or else maybe her mother became a witch - my friend wasn't too sure.

A friend told me she believed her mother could read her thoughts, but only when they were both touching the same object or piece of furniture. 

A friend told me she saw door closers as a species of insects, with just one leg, similar to that of a grasshopper.

A friend told me their relationship to their father was so distant that they saw him as a kind of domestic stranger, a quiet and polite man who was there every evening, had dinner, slept there, had no other clear connection to the place. One day their mother said, 'I'm going away this weekend, so Daddy's going to look after you'. My friend didn't quite understand why her mother had chosen this particular stranger for the task.

A friend told me the washing-machine at home would repeat the same name on loop when it was on: Caroline, Caroline (pronounced the French way, Caroleen), like a desperate lover, slowlier and slowlier as it drew to an end.

A friend told me they always struggled at church to find sins to confess, so they asked a kid in the class, who always had good ideas for sins. Each sin idea cost a little bit of money or a marble. 

A friend told me that on the first day of school, her teacher asked her to draw herself on an A3 sheet of paper and she drew herself in a corner, as a tiny, tiny figure. Her teacher showed the drawing to her parents and they all concluded it was clear that she was shy. Thus she knew she was shy.

A friend told me he thought every child at some point in their life got kidnapped by someone.

A friend told me they refused to stop believing in Father Christmas, even though they knew full well he didn't exist, because then he would stop existing.

Any of yours to add?

Clémentine Beauvais is a writer and literary translator. Her YA novels in English are Piglettes (Pushkin, 2017) and In Paris with You (trans. Sam Taylor, Faber, 2018).

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Writing for a generation that might never grow up – Clémentine Beauvais

In the past few months or years, in the light of what seems like a dramatically accelerating ecological crisis, many of us in jobs linked to education, teaching, or children’s culture and literature have thought, why are we doing this? What’s the point? What becomes of our main drive to act, reasons to exist, if the generation of children we’re addressing might never grow up to be adults? 

My first (and only) academic monograph, drawn from my PhD thesis, called The Mighty Child, was a theorisation of politically committed children’s literature. It is premised on the idea that children’s literature relies on one simple theoretical ‘fact’: children are, in today’s world, symbolically endowed with greater temporal power than adults. Children's symbolic currency is time left, while adults are defined by a greater wealth of time past. Time left provides one with a kind of power I called might, or potential, and time past with a kind of power I called authority. Children’s literature, I theorised, is one of the ways in which society orchestrates the conversion of time past into time left – of authority into might.

But over time, struck, like many others, with the alternatively depressing, paralysing, infuriating and – to a weird extent – liberating, realisation that we might actually be among the last representatives of humanity on Earth, I’ve come to rethink my relationship to writing, to children, to transmission. The panic is concrete, contextual, situated (where will we live? What will we eat? When and how will we actually die?), but the thinking is more philosophical in nature. What is the essence of children’s literature in a world where childly temporality is no longer overlapping with adult temporality, but coterminous with it?

Some might say that in this climate, the sole function of children’s literature should be entertainment, and aesthetic pleasure without purpose, as it always should be and always should have been. In a world which dies tomorrow, the argument goes, making today the best possible day for children should be on everyone’s list of priorities. That means – no to ‘didactic’ children’s literature, no to ‘edifying’ books, educational non-fiction, none of that stuff. Give them their Pascalian entertainment, and let them live a short, but happy, life.

Some might say, on the contrary, that children’s literature should now be about teaching children the wisdom of how to die, which would be a fascinating comeback to the times when children’s literature had that mission, to a great extent, as its priority. When child mortality was high, literature for the young was, of course, very much geared towards preparing readers for that eventuality – making sure they died virtuously, so that the pearly gates would creak wide open at the squishy sound of their footsteps on the clouds.

Some might say children’s literature should no longer be a priority for anyone; in fact, that its very existence is both environmentally harmful and intellectually and emotionally distracting. It destroys armies of trees that should breathe for us; every single stage of its production, from designing it to printing it to transporting it to storing it to selling it to throwing it away, is toxic. I have been acutely, anxiously aware of this recently, thinking of my own books to come, each of them with a little cloud of CO2 hovering above its covers: the lovely picturebook with bright inks and glossy paper shipped from China, the cheap paperbacks to be gluttonously devoured and discarded, the luxury hardback editions in indestructible shrink-wrapping. 

And those oh-so-instagrammable publicity packs, lovingly prepared for the purpose of being ripped open and thrown away on a Story with 24 hour planned obsolescence, the gold-glazed bookmarks, the nylon ribbons around the resin trinket, the plastic-stick lollipop, the superfluous fridge magnet, all in a nest of bubblewrap and chunks of polystyrene the size of cocktail sausages…

Some might say that children’s literature should, in fact, continue existing, should continue existing even more, albeit differently – be more modestly produced, be more politically committed still. That school, of which I am, or want to be, sees that category of text as characterised precisely by the fact that it carries within it a hope for tomorrow.

It is perhaps, we say, the most important thing that distinguishes children’s literature from ‘literature for adults’: its very existence is premised on an extreme, obsessive concern with tomorrow. Not necessarily a better, more enchanting tomorrow; just a tomorrow. As long as that faith exists, then children’s literature is imperative; it calls; it must exist too. Children’s literature, perhaps, is the literary expression of our desire and belief that there is such a thing as a day after this one for us as a species.

To what extent is this desire, that belief, maintained solely by that very performance? To what extent is it anything else than an odd kind of Pascal’s wager? I have days when I don’t think it is anything else than that; days when I am genuinely convinced that we are speaking and writing for the very last generation of children to reach adolescence, adulthood maybe at a stretch.

Some other times, I’m more upbeat, and I think – and yet, what if we do survive? or what if some of us survive who value the fact that we kept producing that discourse that we call children’s literature? Sometimes I think that I would like, even after I’m dead, for a corpus of texts to remain that testifies that, even in the face of a potential complete loss of future, we kept alive that discourse of hope for the existence of tomorrow. 

Clémentine Beauvais is a writer and literary translator. Her YA novels in English are Piglettes (Pushkin, 2017) and In Paris with You (trans. Sam Taylor, Faber, 2018).

Sunday, 28 July 2019

Children's literature that refers to children's literature - Clémentine Beauvais

I want to talk today about a phenomenon I've noticed in children's and YA literature, and which seems to me to be on the rise: what I'd call 'lateral' intertextual and intervisual references in children's literature. Namely, children's texts that refer 'sideways' to other children's books, rather than 'up' to 'adult', clasical, 'real' literature, as used to be more common.

Children's literature has always tried to establish and consolidate its own status as worthy of existence and respect, and since hardly anybody helps it in that endeavour, it's had to help itself. One of the ways a text can inscribe itself into a prestigious literary family tree is to refer to (more) prestigious literary relatives. And so, since its early days, children's books have generously referred to 'adult' literature, especially to classics.

Those referential networks have been quite varied. Adaptations, rewritings, abridged versions - children's books have been, historically, often 'indebted' to adult classics. Among the first novels considered to be 'for children' is Fénelon's Télémaque, which was, of course, a rewriting of the Odyssey. Today, there are still many children's and YA books that align themselves with classic texts generally seen as being for adults. 
Image result for télémaque fénelon

Not all do so for educational reasons (and there's nothing wrong with those that do, of course, I hasten to say). Plenty of children's books use 'adult' literature as a playing field, referring to canonical texts and authors discreetly, in intertextual games of varied levels of irreverence. Daniel Pennac's Kamo series, for instance, play with Wuthering Heights in an extremely erudite way, but there is no pressure whatsoever to go read the 'source' text - that said, when you do read it later in life, you arguably enjoy the experience even more for all the moments of retrospective understanding. The same could be said, on this side of the Channel, for Philip Pullman's rewriting of Paradise Lost, His Dark Materials.

Image result for kamo the babel agency

Frequently, too, children's literature has established relations of a more parodic, pastichey or satirical nature with the 'prestigious' texts it references. In that tradition of children's literature, the intertextual or intervisual references to more canonical fields are sweet-and-sour: respectful sometimes, mocking often. From Lewis Carroll's 'How doth the little crocodile' to the whole works of Anthony Browne, those references have come in to question what one, as a child (or indeed adult) is supposed to like. Children's literature, of course, sets tastes - reading tastes, aesthetic judgments - and for a long time it took seriously its guiding role as an introduction to 'real', grown-up art. But then it decided it could do more than that, and critique from the inside the very concept of 'real', grown-up art. References here range from well-meaning and humorous to brutally acerbic.

Image result for how doth the little crocodile
All those references, however, whether respectful or irreverent, remain 'upwards' winks, towards that Other, Higher Literature that children's books have always looked up to in spite of themselves, hoping, secretly, to be helping children to reach it some day... They are also, of course, ways for authors to legitimise their own statuses - sure, I write for children, but look, I'm a real writer, I'm well-read, I know the canon.

Just in case it sounds like I'm being critical of my peers, let me plead absolutely (and unashamedly) guilty to that erudite crime, since a very large number of my children's books are extremely referential - and mostly to that Higher Literature, the literature that grown-ups consume and approve of.

More recently, children's literature has started playing with other webs of references, closer to itself, but still classical: the canon of children's literature. It is quite common to see references in children's literature to Peter Pan, Jules Verne, Alice in Wonderland, The Little Prince, and, of course, fairy tales, Aesop's fables, nursery rhymes. For instance, Thomas Taylor's Malamander is full of delightful intertextual references to Peter Pan. Those glances are more 'sideways' than 'upwards', but they still look 'up' to a canon.

But I've also been intrigued to see an increasing number of authors and children's books that make explicit, joyful and unashamed references to other contemporary, non-canonical authors and books. In other words, we now see children's literature establishing itself as a worthwhile field of references, weaving itself its own web of self-referentiality, finding itself worthy of winks. No inferiority complex anymore: it's about celebrating children's literature in children's literature, severing the links to that Other literature, that Great literature, and finding oneself quite satisfied with what's left.

I started to notice this first in picturebooks - with French author-illustrators such as Gilles Bachelet and Claude Ponti, whose explicitly referential work started to feature other contemporary characters: Bachelet, for instance, references Pomelo, the pink elephant of Ramona Badescu and Benjamin Chaud's contemporary series.

Related image
Gilles Bachelet, referencing two pieces of children's culture at the same time, one canonical, one less so
I then started to notice it everywhere. In L’écrivain abominable, a French MG novel by Anne-Gaelle Balpe, the eponymous 'abominable writer' of the title (an evil children's writer) is called Roland Dale (pronounced, in French, 'Dahl'). In a recent MG novel by Paul Martin, Violette Hurlevent et le Jardin Sauvage, the wild wolves' names are of famous picturebook illustrators, including 'Sendak' and 'Nadja'. I've caught myself doing that in my own books, too, with references to other children's authors and their works, and in turn I've found my works, to (I'm not going to lie) my great delight, here and there referred to in the works of other children's authors in France.

I think that those 'lateral' winks are in part due to the fact that children's literature has become a field of its own, where authors read each other abundantly, know each other, keep a close eye on what's being published, and genuinely enjoy that vast and varied production. I'm not sure the same happens as much in 'adult' fiction, in part because the emotional investment and intellectual interest in one's contemporaries' books seems to me - admittedly from the outside - to be on the whole lower.

Through this recent-ish move, children's and YA literature is establishing its own field of knowledge and references and, to some extent, theorising itself as well as its reading and writing practices. Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl, which I actually recommend to my undergraduates as one of the best 'theoretical' works on fanfiction, refers to many teenage series, as well as to the whole extended universe, reading habits and creative offshoots of YA fiction-reading.
Image result for rainbow rowell fangirl

Those references are arguably anecdotal in comparison to the ocean of 1) non-referential works and 2) works that reference classic, adult literature or canonical children's literature, but I wouldn't be surprised to see them intensifying and normalising, as children's and YA literature increasingly asserts its own status as an artistic field of its own, full of contemporary vitality, and worth referring to. And adult literature, which already refers to canonical children's literature and to works such as Harry Potter, will look no longer downwards, but sideways, at us.

Clémentine Beauvais is a writer and literary translator. Her YA novels in English are Piglettes (Pushkin, 2017) and In Paris with You (trans. Sam Taylor, Faber, 2018).

Friday, 28 June 2019

A Biography of Dreams - Clémentine Beauvais

I dream of a dream autobiography. One that would let us see nothing of a person’s waking life, but everything of their night-time wanderings, and the evolution throughout a lifetime of that dreamscape.

Infant visions, of god knows what - some light blue and very soft, others the worst shadows? Childhood nightmares of monsters, of hunger, of parents transformed into uncanny-valley creatures. Ecstatic dreams of flying, eating and peeing in awkward places, the young camouflage of eros. Adolescent dreams of shame, of triumph, of sex - some seemingly scarily misguided, others terrifyingly bang-on.

Within all that, other circumstantial variances : pregnancy dreams around one’s period, the thirst dreams of hot summer nights, the smothering nightmares of thick duvets. Those strange phases, days, weeks, when dreams seem to vanish, where have they gone, because of what? Stress, business, other things on one’s mind, too much joy. Other phases, the opposite: hyperactive psychedelic nightmares, Technicolor musical dreams.

The old clichés: naked-in-public dreams, lost teeth? I never had those, but apparently it’s common. A hefty dose of those are needed in the dream biography, to give it the appropriate effet de réel.

Adulthood and its lamentable wastes of good dreaming time: sleep squandered in work dreams, admin dreams, train dreams and more toilet dreams. The atrocious dreams at the confines of horror and dark desire: seeing one’s children dead, one’s parents dead, one’s partner dead. Dreams of piles of washing. More erotic dreams (more guilt).

Once in a blue moon, dreams of, well, blue moons, and other fantasy lands. As an adult, dreaming of actual monsters can be considered a privilege. Flying is a rare occurrence.

Old age. I don’t know. What do you dream of in old age? Tell me.

When I was a child, and a huge Harry Potter fan (which I still am), I would dream very often of flying around on brooms and doing magic with wands, but also just with my hands, or any object. My nightmares were terrifying and absolutely uncontrollable, but my dreams were pliable and kind. I wandered around Hogwarts at least a couple of times a week with Harry, Ron and Hermione.

But I remember well the time, around 14 years old, when wizard dreams started to malfunction. I used to be able to murmur ‘Lumos!’ and there would be light. Gradually, there wasn’t. I had weird frustrating dreams where I had a wand, but it didn’t work very well.

In one of them, I said ‘Lumos, Lumos,’ and the light went on, but that was because I’d tapped the light switch with the tip of my wand. I was aware it was cheating, but didn’t want to acknowledge it.

I remember I told my mother this dream and she burst out loud laughing, and said something like, ‘it’s the end of childhood, my darling’. It made me enormously sad at the time, because you can always count on children to romanticise their own childhood and mourn its loss even more than adults do.

Soon, I could no longer fly in dreams, but merely jump very high.

These days I never dream of making magic Evil magical things being done to me, yes. And I hardly ever dream of flying. Falling, yes. 

I don’t think it’s because I’m unhappy, or unimaginative. Maybe my superego’s become too strong for my id. It’s most definitely a Mr Banks kind of superego, not a Mary Poppins.

Graham Greene wrote a wonderful book of his dreams. Many encounters with famous people, politicians, writers. Normally, there’s nothing more boring than someone’s dream narratives. But those ones he manages to make fascinatingly universal. Just like the best (auto)biographies.
Who is the most famous person you’ve ever met in a dream? I nearly only meet minor starlets, for mostly incomprehensible reasons. JK Rowling I met often as a child and a teenager, but I never do now. She must be too busy being on Twitter to drop by.

The dream biography would see dead people and exes and long-forgotten friends come back and drift away again according to mysterious rules and cycles. My cat Opaline died seven years ago but she is with me at least once a month, generally very ill, and I have to protect her. Same with my sister, today a fiercely independent, strong and brave 24-year-old, but who appears in my dreams almost always as a tiny baby under my sole responsibility. My dead grandfather is often there. I always know he’s dead, and feel pleasantly surprised that, in spite of that, he’s bothered to turn up at whichever dream event I meet him.

A biography of dreams worthy of the name would require a strategic approach to data, of course; based on dream diaries, but also day diaries, for information to be triangulated as seriously as the exercise requires. But the day life must only be mentioned extremely allusively, and in small touches, and only insofar as it illuminates the central narrative. As in any writing project, it’s important to have a clear focus.

When the dream autobiography becomes a successful publishing trend, you can trust quantitative researchers will turn to the data for content analysis. We’ll start distinguishing patterns and predicting trends. It’s that time of life again when you’re going to sleep with all of your exes, sorry! Then, in a few months’ time, it will only be dreams of missing buses and your debit card not working. You’ll be utterly incapable of sending any text or email in any dream. It will only be random letters and hieroglyph-like symbols. Oh, and you’ll accidentally send your boss dick picks you didn’t even know you had in your phone. After that, for weeks you’ll eat a lot of cake and be stalked by monsters. At some point, apocalypse nightmare! The land will fold under your feet and volcano eruptions will be spectacular. You’ll hate it while it happens, but then you’ll have something to talk about when you wake up.

I have a friend with whom I discuss dreams almost every morning, like we’d comment on the latest news. It is a kind of intimacy I’d wish on anyone.

Psychoanalysts would hate this dream biography, because writing down a dream is forbidden in that science. You have to speak it, because there’s no such thing as a dream narrative, they say, only what you do with those pictures when you tell them to someone, free-associate, and hesitate and ramble. I agree fundamentally, I think, but still: I want to read that literary effort, that attempt to make sense of it, to chronologise it all. I want it to be aesthetic.

Who will write that autobiography for us? Someone hopefully very normal, with dreams like ours. But someone diligent and with a sense of humour. They’d need to write down their dreams from the earliest ages. Illustrate them, that’d be nice too. Then select (necessary stage) with a razor-sharp sensitivity for pertinence. And then tell us that story.

I don’t read much in the manner of biographies and only slightly more when it comes to autobiographies. But that one I’d read from cover to cover. An existence’s flipside.

Clémentine Beauvais is a writer and literary translator. Her YA novels in English are Piglettes (Pushkin, 2017) and In Paris with You (trans. Sam Taylor, Faber, 2018).