Ruth Padel Brings a Jewel to the Salon

posted Oct 6, 2018, 5:28 AM by Marta Maretich   [ updated Oct 6, 2018, 5:51 AM ]

by Catherine Davidson

On September 26th, we hosted Ruth Padel for our first event in a new location. I have taken up hosting, along with Lucasta Miller, and I was understandably nervous, but with committee members Karen Scourby D’Arc and Julia Weiner on hand to help, everything went smoothly.

Two days before I had seen our previous and much missed host, Sarah Glazer, for tea. She was about to start teaching a new course at NYU and was sorry she had to leave before the reading, but I was happy to report we had a full house response to our event. On the night itself, the Piccadilly strike brought the numbers down, but we still had a wonderful crowd of novelists, poets, historians, journalists and readers who mingled in the kitchen over the mezze and then went upstairs to hear Ruth read.

Emerald really is like a jewel brought up from the deep. Written in the wake of the death of her 97 year old mother, it is a series of poems about mourning, a tender portrait of a remarkable mother (the great-granddaughter of Darwin), a meditation on the tensions between science and faith, and an assertion of the power of story-telling and the way words transform the base material of daily life into something wonderful and lasting.

Ruth’s reading was a reminder of the best of what poetry can be – how it can contain layers of meaning in a compact form through the conversations words, images, lines and even poems have within a compressed space, and how good poets can access multiple layers of memory and imagination in their readers as well. This really struck me as I listened to Ruth read aloud poems I had enjoyed and admired on the page; in her intonations and breath, her pauses and tone, they took on greater depth and dimensionality.

It was hard to stop in time for a discussion, but I had questions I wanted to ask about how Ruth produced a book of such intensity and depth in the wake of one of life’s most profound griefs. She told us that she had been working on a book about emeralds; her mother’s illness and death erupted into the middle of this material and drove a white line through it. What emerged was a much more compact and multi-layered book. She talked about the editing process like a form of chiselling, and said she was very lucky to have an editor who encouraged her to chip away the much larger work to find these compact conversations instead.

It seemed that many in the audience had views about emeralds – from the esoteric to the everyday; we heard there was an English superstition against giving emeralds, and the role that emeralds played in alchemy. Julia Weiner told us about a talk she gave at the V&A on a collection of Mughal emeralds.

We ended the evening with a look forward – to future salons in West London, in North London at the biographer Lucasta Miller’s house, and a possible Field Trip to the Women’s Library in the new year.

Ruth Padel's book, Emerald, is availalble at bookshops and through all major online retailers.

Deborah Levy Talks about How She Makes Reality Slip in Her Novels

posted Dec 2, 2016, 12:59 AM by Sarah Glazer   [ updated Dec 2, 2016, 1:07 AM ]


On the last night of November, Deborah Levy came to speak to the Upper Wimpole Street Literary Salon about voice, volition and how to ask the important questions. Levy is a poet and playwright, the award-winning author of six novels, two of them nominated for the Booker, and the book length essay, Things I Don’t Want to Know, which she was commissioned to write as a response to Orwell’s Why I Write.

Levy’s work often involves a perilous journey of some kind, and last night, life imitated art. Something so terrible happened to the tube system that one invitee was stuck in Holborn tube for an hour and had to turn back. Traffic everywhere was gridlocked, and it took Deborah an hour and a half in two different taxis to reach us. 

We had eaten all the mezze by the time she arrived, and we skipped introductions in order to get started. With only a glass of wine to recover, Deborah Levy impressed us all with her immediate focus, depth of attention and warmth towards her audience.

We started out talking about voice. In her book-length essay, Levy responds to Orwell’s call for “sheer ego” as a necessary quality in a writer by claiming, “even the most arrogant female writer has to work overtime to build an ego that is robust enough to get her through January, never mind all the way to December.” 

Reading her own words, Levy said, as a writer first she had to learn to speak loudly and then even louder, and then in her own voice, not very loudly at all. Sometimes being loud is mistaken for asserting your voice; her voice is not loud, but it is insistent. If you pursue the questions that demand your particular attention, your voice will have power. This is what makes writing interesting for a writer and a reader.

In response to a comment by a novelist who mentors other writers in pursuit of “getting published,” Levy told the story of a friend who displayed the first four pages of her as yet unpublished Swimming Home at the entrance to an art exhibit. The display had to be taken down because the crowds who gathered to read the work were blocking the entrance. Later, when an editor at a major publisher asked her to take out those very pages, she had the courage to resist. Everyone knows what happened next: the book was published by a small independent, went on to acclaim and prizes and is now with Penguin. 

Someone asked Levy about research. Each of Levy’s books is informed by a huge amount of reading and thinking that may in the end appear “only as a whisper.” She draws a line when she starts to write, and will only look up references at the end of the process. To write about the hypochondriac mother in Hot Milk, Levy read all the way from Hippocrates through Freud to neuroscience about psychosomatic illness, a subject much stranger than appears in the book.

If that book seems surreal to readers, Levy offered this explanation: “I went to the sacred altar of the realist novel and moved a few things around to show how reality slips.” If you’re an extreme hypochondriac-- like the mother in Hot Milk, who says she wants her feet amputated--reality slips, Levy observed. “It’s hard to create a reality and subvert it”—something she aimed to do in that novel. 

The importance of place in her writing, Levy agreed, was key. Like Henry James and E.M. Forster, she often takes her characters out of their known environments, where they react under the pressure of the unfamiliar. To write Hot Milk, Levy began with Almeria, Spain. Levy had in mind the idea of a person who feels very small in an enormously large landscape, Almeria’s sky and desert.

Levy was generous with the listeners, drawing them out of their silences. She asked them questions about their writing and their influences. We ended the evening with a discussion about books. Levy described her shelves as full of Freud because of the way he gets her to think about the essential question of where the bodies are buried. She also likes J.G. Ballard, Patricia Highsmith, Marguerite Duras, and is currently reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. 

Levy is also a big fan of Montaigne. His discursive essays on a wide array of questions that demand his attention are not that different from Levy’s narrative non-fiction. It turns out Things You Don’t Want to Know is the first of a planned trilogy, which will surely become one of the most valuable books on any woman writer’s shelf.

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