I've just finished a series of Olivia Manning novels. She's best known for two trilogies: Balkan Trilogy and Levant Trilogy. The six novels are continuous and contain the same set of characters. They are based on Manning's experiences in Eastern Europe and Egypt during the Second World War. Each novel is a wonderful picture of the peculiar British expatriate culture and what was happening during the war. She's one of those brilliant women who write very well about domestic relationships. All the books are slim, and it's easy to gallop through them.
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We fitted together like the two halves of an oyster-shell. I was Narcissus, embracing the pond in which I was about to drown. However much we had to hide our love, however guarded we had to be about our pleasure, I could not long be miserable about a thing so very sweet. Nor, in my gladness, could I quite believe that anybody would be anything but happy for me if only they knew.
How will a person know, Selina, when the soul that has the affinity with hers is near it?" She answered, "She will know. Does she look for air, before she breathes it? This love will be guided to her; and when it comes, she will know. And she will do anything to keep that love about her, then. Because to lose it will be like a death to her.
She ran, and leaned to the wall, until her face was close to mine and her breath came on me. I said, 'I'll do it. I'll go with you. I love you, and I cannot give you up. Only tell me what I must do and I will do it!' Then I saw her eye, and it was black, and my own face swam in it, pale as a pearl. And then, it was like Pa and the looking-glass. My soul left me - I felt it fly from me and lodge in her.
Don't panic. Midway through writing a novel, I have regularly experienced moments of bowel-curdling terror, as I contemplate the drivel on the screen before me and see beyond it, in quick succession, the derisive reviews, the friends' embarrassment, the failing career, the dwindling income, the repossessed house, the divorce... Working doggedly on through crises like these, however, has always got me there in the end. Leaving the desk for a while can help. Talking the problem through can help me recall what I was trying to achieve before I got stuck. Going for a long walk almost always gets me thinking about my manuscript in a slightly new way. And if all else fails, there's prayer. St Francis de Sales, the patron saint of writers, has often helped me out in a crisis. If you want to spread your net more widely, you could try appealing to Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, too.
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She shook her head, and closed her eyes. I felt her weariness then, and with it, my own. I felt it dark and heavy upon me, darker and heavier than any drug they ever gave me - it seemed heavy as death. I looked at the bed. I have seemed to see our kisses there sometimes, I've seen them hanging in the curtains, like bats, ready to swoop. Now, I thought, I might jolt the post and they would only fall, and shatter, and turn to powder.
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The morning has broken - I had thought of the morning like an egg that had split with a crack and was spreading. Before us lay all the green of the green country of England, with its rivers and it's roads and it's hedges, it's churches, it's chimneys, it's rising threads of smoke. The chimneys grew taller, the roads and rivers wider, the threads of smoke more thick, the farther off the country spread; until at last, at the farthest point of all, they made a smudge, a stain, a darkness - a darkness, like the darkness of the coal in a fire - a darkness that was broken, here and there, where the sun caught panes of glass and the golden tips of domes and steeples, with glittering points of light. 'London, ' I said 'Oh, London!
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Her corset was long, with a busk of steel; her waist, as I think I have said, was narrow: the kind of waist the doctors speak against, that gives a girl an illness. Her crinoline was made of watchspring. Her hair, inside its net, was fixed with half a pound of pins, and a comb of silver. Her petticoats and shimmy were calico. Underneath it all, however, she was soft and smooth as butter. Too soft, I thought her. I imagined her bruising. She was like a lobster without its shell. She stood in her stockings while I fetched her nightgown, her arms above her head, her eyes shut tight; and for a second I turned, and looked at her. My gaze was nothing to her. I saw her bosom, her bottom, her feather and everything and - apart from the feather, which was brown as a duck's - she was as pale as a statue on a pillar in a park. So pale she was, she seemed to shine.
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And for a moment I though I would tell her, that it would be the easiest and the slightest thing imaginable- that after all, if anyone would understand it, she would. That I need only say, 'I am in love, Helen! I am in love! There is a girl so rare and marvelous and strange, and- Helen, she has all my life in her!
I had a very clear vision, of Selina with her hair about her shoulders, a crimson hat upon her head, a velvet coat, ice-skates - I must have been remembering some picture. I imagined myself beside her, the air coming sharply into our mouths. I imagined how it would be if I took her, not to Italy, but only to Marishes, to my sister's house; if I sat with her at supper, and shared her room, and kissed her - I cannot say what would frighten them most - her being a spirit-medium, or a convict, or a girl.
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Then I knew how good you were, to come to me, after all you had seen. The first hour they had me there, do you know what frightened me the most? Oh, it was a torment to me!- far worse than any punishment of theirs. It was the thought that you might stay from me; the thought that I might have driven you away, and with the very thing I meant to keep you near me!
She raised her head when she heard my step, and her gaze met my own, over the matron's dipping shoulder, and her eyes grew bright. I knew then how hard it had been to keep, not just from Millbank but from her. I felt that little quickening. It was just as I imagine a woman must feel, when the baby within her gives its first kick. Does it matter if I feel that, that is so small, and silent, and secret?
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Now I have more freedom than I have ever had at any time in my life, and I do only the things I always have. They were empty before, but Selina has given a meaning to them, I do them for her. I am waiting, for her - but, waiting, I think, is too poor a word for it. I am engaged with the substance of the minutes as they pass. I feel the surface of my flesh stir - it is like the surface of the sea that knows the moon is drawing near it. If I take up a book, I might as well never have seen a line of print before - books are filled, now, with messages aimed only at me. An hour ago, I found this: The blood is listening in my frame, And thronging shadows, fast and thick, Fall on my overflowing eyes... It is as if every poet who ever wrote a line to his own love wrote secretly for me, and for Selina. My blood - even as I write this - my blood, my muscle and every fibre of me, is listening, for her. When I sleep, it is to dream of her. When shadows move across my eye, I know them now for shadows of her. My room is still, but never silent - I hear her heart, beating across the night in time to my own. My room is dark, but darkness is different for me now. I know all its depths and textures - darkness like velvet, darkness like felt, darkness bristling as coir or prison wool.
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But you cannot know the glimpses I have had, you cannot know there is another, dazzling place, that seems to welcome me! I have been led to it, Helen, by someone marvellous and strange. You won't know this. They will tell you of her, and they will make her seem squalid and ordinary, they will turn my passion into something gross and wrong. You will know, that it is neither of those things. It is only love, Helen - only that. I cannot live, and not be at her side!
I had loved Kitty -I would always love Kitty. But I had lived with her a kind of queer half-life, hiding from my own true self. Since then I had refused to love at all, had become - or so I thought - a creature beyond passion, driving others to their secret, humiliating confessions of lust; but never offering my own.
It is a world that is made of love. Did you think there is only the kind of love your sister has for her husband? Did you think there must be here, a man with whiskers, and over here, a lady in a gown? Haven't I said, there are no whiskers and gowns where spirits are? And what will your sister do if her husband should die, and she should take another? Who will she fly to then, when she has crossed the spheres? For she will fly to someone, we will all fly to someone, we will all return to that piece of shining matter from which our souls were torn with another, two halves of the same.
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One time, two years ago, I took a draught of morphia, meaning to end my life. My mother found me before the life was ended, the doctor drew the poison from my stomach with a syringe, and when I woke, it was to the sound of my own weeping. For I had hoped to open my eyes on Heaven, where my father was; and they had only pulled me back to Hell.
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She scissored the curls away, and - toms, grow easily sentimental over their haircuts, but I remember this sensation very vividly - it was not like she was cutting hair, it was as if I had a pair of wings beneath my shoulder-blades, that the flesh had all grown over, and she was slicing free...
Cut like crazy. Less is more. I've often read manuscripts - including my own - where I've got to the beginning of, say, chapter two and have thought: "This is where the novel should actually start." A huge amount of information about character and backstory can be conveyed through small detail. The emotional attachment you feel to a scene or a chapter will fade as you move on to other stories. Be business-like about it.
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