Gee, Maggie (Mary)
GEE, Maggie (Mary)
Nationality: British. Born: Poole, Dorset, 2 November 1948. Education: Horsham High School for Girls; Somerville College, Oxford (open scholarship), B.A. 1969, M. Litt. 1972, Ph.D. in English 1980. Family: Married Nicholas Rankin in 1983; one daughter. Career: Editor, Elsevier International Press, Oxford, 1972-74; research assistant, Wolverhampton Polytechnic, 1975-79; Eastern Arts writing fellow, University of East Anglia, Norwich, 1982; since 1987 honorary visiting fellow, Sussex University, 1987. Lives in London. Agent: Anne McDermid, Curtis Brown, 3 Queens Square, London WC1, England.
Dying, In Other Words. Brighton, Harvester Press, 1981; Boston, Faber, 1984.
The Burning Book. London, Faber, 1983; New York, St. Martin'sPress, 1984.
Light Years. London, Faber, 1985; New York, St. Martin's Press, 1986.
Grace. London, Heinemann, 1988; New York, Grove Weidenfeld, 1989.
Where Are the Snows. London, Heinemann, 1991; New York, Ticknor and Fields, 1992.
Lost Children. London, HarperCollins, 1994.
The Ice People. London, Richard Cohen Books, 1998.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Rose on the Broken," in Granta 7 (Cambridge), 1982.
"Mornington Place," in London Tales, edited by Julian Evans. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1983.
Over and Out (broadcast, 1984). Published in Literary Review (London), February 1984.
Over and Out, 1984.
How May I Speak in My Own Voice?: Language and the Forbidden. London, Birkbeck College, 1996.
Maggie Gee comments:
My chief twentieth-century models are probably Woolf, Nabokov, and Beckett. But I was also raised on the great nineteenth-century writers like Dickens and Thackeray. And I loved stories: I read and re-read my mother's copy of Hans Christian Andersen. I wanted to write stories myself; and I always felt that the difficulty of much twentieth-century "serious" writing must be a problem, not a virtue. If I was difficult, it was despite myself. On the one hand I wanted to write new things, and tell the absolute truth according to my perception of it, which often seems to demand new ways of writing: on the other hand, I've become increasingly aware of the importance of an audience.
My first published novel, Dying, In Other Words, is probably the most difficult technically. It is a bizarre kind of thriller. Moira's body is found on the pavement one morning. The police assume it is suicide; yet the milkman who found the body turns out to be a mass-murderer, far too many of Moira's surviving acquaintances start to die in their turn, and increasingly often the sound of typing can be heard in Moira's "empty" room … is she still alive, and writing the story? The novel is a circle; and when it returns inevitably to the point of Moira's death, we find it was neither suicide nor murder, after all….
The Burning Book is a variation on the family saga. Two English working families, the Ships and the Lambs, shop-keepers and railway-workers, try to live their own lives, interrupted by two world wars and the threat of a third. One theme of the book is the stupidity of nuclear weapons, which endanger all stories and the continuity embodied in families. There are flashbacks to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The family itself isn't perfect; violence and frustration inside it counterpoint violence and frustration outside. On a small scale, though, humans can learn to do better. The central couple, Henry and Lorna, finally learn to love each other by the last chapter of the book, when they go for a winter picnic in an earthly Eden, Kew Gardens. By a stupid irony, the public world of war-like headlines breaks in on their "happy ending." Light Years is an inverted romance, set in 1984. The lovers, Lottie and Harold, split up on the first page of the novel, and are apart through the year (and 52 chapters) that the book lasts, though perhaps things change in the very last chapter …. The longer they are separated, the more they love each other. Meanwhile, the earth turns full circle, and the seasons, the stars, and the planets play their part in the very formal structure of this book. It is my "easiest" book I think—short chapters, short sections within the chapters, with much "lighter" looking pages: all of which was intended to help express a rather rare commodity in twentieth-century literature—happiness.
Retrospectively, I realized that each of these three books was an attempt to write a new version of a popular genre—thriller, family saga, romance—to appeal to basic emotions, and use basic narrative drives, but to re-work the genre in my own way, and to surprise my readers. All I am conscious of at the time of writing, though, is a desire to show the truth, in ways I never can in speech, and a desire to make structures as beautiful as I can.
(1995) Grace is an anti-nuclear thriller, whose form and themes both depend on ideas of splitting and one-ness—splitting of the atom, of the male and female sides of ourselves, of families, of society.
Where Are the Snows is a panoramic global love-story, the story of Christopher and Alexandria, a bourgeois couple who give up family and roots for love. They are both archetypal tourists—thinking they can buy the planet and use it as a backdrop for their personal drama—and embodiments of the "transcendental homelessness" that Georg Lukacs saw as central to the novel form. I was writing about a fantasy of eternal youth and romance that runs aground on the rocks of bodily aging, and about our human need for something wider than a couple bond; about the loneliness and greed of contemporary western society; about our selfish desire to have everything for ourselves, within our own individual life-spans, and a consequent contempt for the future and the past, most obviously shown in my central couple's abandonment of Christopher's teenage children, and Alexandra "forgetting" to have children of her own—until it is too late.
Lost Children is a British book, like Grace. It is about the process of dealing with loss—of a teenage daughter, Zoe, who runs away from home, in the first instance. But the bereaved mother, Alma, is driven back to her own lost childhood as she tries to understand what has happened; is it the working-through of an older pattern of unhappiness that has driven her daughter away in 1993? The 1990s London of the novel is full of poverty and literal lost, homeless children, a darker city than the already troubled London of Light Years, a decade earlier. The personal question the book asks is one that particularly concerns the middle-aged, like Alma—how can we understand our parents? How can we understand and forgive ourselves as parents?
The Keeper of the Gate (work in progress) is about the difficult transition between centuries, and that between life and death. One of London's last Park Keepers has a stroke and faces death. In his absence in the hospital, a racial murder takes place in a park which for a hundred years has never known a major crime. Meanwhile, the middle-class children of this working-class man jostle for position around his bed and try to understand their parents, themselves, and the frightening future. The sub-text of this book is the loss of public space, the breakdown of public order, the lost notion of truly shared society—and how black and white can live together.* * *
In her as yet short career as a novelist Maggie Gee has gained the reputation of an experimentalist. Technically innovative would be the way I would prefer to describe her work, and this is certainly true of her first novel Dying, In Other Words. Beginning with the dramatic suicide of a young writer, Moira Penny, Dying, In Other Words could have been a brightly written but run-of-the mill suspense thriller, and in some ways it is. But it is considerably more than that, for Penny's suicide is dropped, as it were, into the pool of lives around her and the ripples spread and impinge on the lives of others and, what makes the novel remarkable, on the continuum of the past and present of those lives. Dying, In Other Words has been described as a "Chinese box of a novel" and that is well put. As the novel progresses the implications of Penny's suicide reach further and further into the lives of others. But while the past impinges, the future overshadows, and in Dying, In Other Words there are already dark hints of the Armageddon to come. What her characters are unaware of is as important as that of which they are aware: "What Bill didn't know was that the girl he evoked, with her long brown limbs and her full yellow rose bud skirt and her underwear smelling of lemon perfume and seaweed died six months later in a car crash." Gee encourages an awareness that her characters exist in a fiction. She pushes beyond this and writes in her second novel The Burning Book: "All of us live in a novel, and none of us do the writing. Just off the stage there are grim old men planning to cut the lighting." Thus Gee can be seen, in spite of (or perhaps because of) her experimentation, to be in the tradition of Fielding and Dickens where the author is ever-present, ready to comment or intervene.
If the ghost of the future is fleetingly glimpsed in Dying, In Other Words, it positively haunts The Burning Book. Indeed that is its theme and purpose as it explores the loves, joys, frustrations, quarrels, hates, degradations and pettinesses of Lorna and her family. "In an ordinary novel," Gee interpolates, "that would be the whole story," but the shadow cast on the future by Hiroshima and Nagasaki darkens the final episode in this everyday story of ordinary folk. It is to Gee's purpose that they are so ordinary, even petty, in their thoughts and relationships, and it is a tribute to her narrative skills that she carries us with them through their dull and messy lives. Because it is their very dullness and messiness that allow us to identify with them and make their final pointless agonizing destruction so telling and poignantly horrifying. As a nuclear warning the book certainly succeeds; and it succeeds as a work of literature as well.
Nevertheless, The Burning Book leaves two largish questions. One is that if Gee wishes her fears and anxieties for our future to be more universally understood, and the passion I sense behind her novels suggests she does, then she may well have to find less sophisticated means to her end. The other question is that having written the terminal novel where does she go? Where she went immediately was to her novel Light Years. "An oddly simple and old fashioned love story" one reviewer has described it. But all Gee's stories as such are simple and old fashioned: the story of a mysterious suicide in Dying, In Other Words, an everyday family saga in The Burning Book. It is what she makes of this material that leaves it far from simple and old fashioned. The narrative of Harold and Ottie in Light Years can be enjoyed on the story level alone, but Gee's intentions are more involved. She can entertain and does, but she has no wish to entertain alone: her narratives reflect a wider, less immediate, context. Sometimes, in order to do this, she has to rely on her author's interpolations and interventions and there is a danger that these can become digressive or intrusive and defeat their purpose. But there is no danger that Gee will cease to look with a compassionate but unblinking eye at a world in which there are no happy endings.
In her novel Grace there are signs that Gee is solving the problem posed by The Burning Book. Grace has the pace and structure of a superior thriller in the style of Ruth Rendell. The threads of the story and the lives they describe gradually and skillfully converge and intermesh. In addition Grace is finely written. Take this description of the seaside town where much of the action takes place:
They do not have their grandeur, these white hotels, set square to the waves, with their flags streaming backwards, flying in splendor from the prevailing winds. Salt eats the paint every winter, and the wood and plaster underneath; each spring they repaint it, and if the walls have shrunk you would hardly detect it from one year to the next … in a few decades, the loss might show.
Coming each year to the white hotels—The Empire, The Sandhurst, The Majestic, The Windsor—the regular guests never notice. Though may be the porter looks older, and that waitress is no longer here, retired, they suppose, to the country cottage she chatted about as she served the soup.
The description is graphic, but it is more than a visual description for there is something of the continuity of decay in it and in it something of the spirit of place. Though in this case we might call it the dispirit of place! Whatever we call it catches the place and its atmosphere beautifully. I quote this as an example of the quality of Gee's writing in Grace. But as her earlier novels have led us to expect the context of Grace and the lives of its characters is a much wider one. The context is of a world of fall-out from Chernobyl, of the trains running through our suburbs carrying nuclear waste, and of the murder of Hilda Murrell. The drama of Grace with its overlapping and interlocking lives and situations is played out against this background which impinges and is as fundamental to the story as Hardy's countryside is to his novels. Grace can be seen as an exciting and considerable advance in the art of Gee's novels.
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