Authors: Maggie Gee
Yes, it was Turkish. I had seen one like it. It was a charm against the evil eye. I stared at it: it stared at me.
We have other lives, I think, I hope … we live in others. We live in things
The eye gazed through me, intense as a peacock’s.
The air beneath us was still unsteady. The intercom crackled, the pilot came on. ‘Sorry about that, ladies and gentlemen. As you may have noticed, we were struck by lightning – ’ Relieved laughter ran through the cabin, followed by a crescendo of clapping.
Yet something about it was not quite right. The seat felt flimsy; the walls were half-painted.
Gerda was sitting in the seat beside me, and beyond her, a triangular presence, a cone of shadow –
no, a woman
Virginia herself was on the plane. Relief rushed through me. I had not lost her.
Angela, Gerda, Virginia, side by side in another world. If time had split, which fork were we on?
There were many worlds, many universes. Maybe we never die entirely.
Now Virginia hoots with laughter. She and Gerda are making up rude rhymes. And then she stops. And then she looks.
A grave thin man comes down the gangway, rubbing his eyes with a trembling hand. Leonard is weeping. He has seen his wife. He cannot speak, but he kneels beside her, takes her blue-veined hands in his. ‘Virginia …Virginia … I think there has been too much excitement …’
‘Leonard, I am well again.’
‘They are all here, darling, all our friends… Lytton is busy with a steward.’
We live in others. We live in words.
Somewhere beyond the thin skin of sky that trembles between the different stories, I hear voices, and there is dancing …
Taksim Square is flush with faces, a rainbow flag, red carnations. A Kurdish poet is giving a reading in three languages; women listen. Far away in dark Manhattan, towers flower like Judas trees, bright-coloured people waving from windows. Staff pour out of the big hotels, shedding uniforms like snow. Crows hop past: ‘
Through the old world, through the new world, through Constantinople and Istanbul, through Manahatta and new Manhattan, through Harlem and Brooklyn, Sultanahmet and Taksim, the people surge, weaving new stories.
We live in others. We live in words.
We fly on, on, towards the turquoise statue who always recedes into the distance, Liberty with her crown of thorns.
Monumental, foolish, hopeful, she holds her beacon up towards us.
Virginia Woolf is an overwhelming presence in modern English literature, especially for women who write. We who come after have to cope with her genius. Woolf was an inspiration to me when I read
aged eighteen, long before she became a central author in my 1980 doctoral thesis, supervised by Dr Vivienne Wylie and Professor David Lodge. I hope this novel will be seen as a twenty-first-century love letter as well as an act of cheek, an attempt not to be afraid of Virginia Woolf. Though most references to Woolf’s real nineteenth and twentieth-century life are based at least loosely on her writings or on the biographies, her thoughts and feelings are mostly my imaginings. The passage on pages 437-438 is a complete invention. No-one can know what happens between two people. The same is true of Woolf’s love for her sister Vanessa, and of her thoughts before she died. In the end, this Virginia is a phantasm, one of Thackeray’s fictional ‘puppets’, always and only my own.
I have been greatly helped with this book by my friends. First among them must be Dr Mine Özyurt Kiliç of Istanbul, author of
Maggie Gee: Writing the Condition-of-England Novel
(Bloomsbury Academic), who helped me to understand a tiny amount about her country. Professor Barbara Goodwin, perennial first reader, and Dr Robin Jared Lewis, New Yorker in China, also read and commented on this manuscript. Thanks to my writer friends Hillary Jordan and Khaled Al Khamissi and to the El Gouna Writers’ Residency at the Hotel Mosaique, Egypt, which gave me time to begin this
novel; to Abdullah Al-Kafri, Kadija Sesay and Victor Sugbo; to the librarians in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library; to Dr Sarah Dillon and Dr Caroline Williams.
Dr Lyndall Gordon, author of the ground-breaking
Virginia Woolf:A Writer’s Life
(OUP) encouraged this project at a very early stage. Dr Alexandra Harris, author of the beautiful short biography
(Thames & Hudson), very kindly read and advised on parts of the final draft of this book, in less than ideal circumstances. All mistakes are, of course, my own.
My beloved daughter Rosa Rankin-Gee, author of
The Last Kings of Sark
(Virago), allowed me to plagiarise a few of her sayings and her adventurous spirit for Gerda, and read an early draft. My equally beloved husband Nicholas Rankin, author of
(Faber & Faber), saved me, sustained me and read me at various moments. He also took me to New York for a birthday present, and it was on that trip, in the New York Public Library, that the book began.
The British Council inspired my love of Turkey when they invited me to do readings in Ankara and Istanbul in the 1990s. Since then there have been many other working trips. My thanks especially to Jonathan Lee and the authors, both British and Turkish, who were such good company in spring 2012. The staff and students at Istanbul University have encouraged and challenged many of my ideas: special thanks to Professor Esra Emelik, who invited me to Istanbul in 2011 for a plenary at a conference very unlike the one in this book; the fortuitous eruption of the Icelandic volcano trapped me there for long enough to nurture this novel. Thanks also to Dr Mehmet Ali Çelikel, Dr Seyda Inceoglu and their students for inviting me to Pamukkale University in 2013.
Professor Moira Penny, who implodes during the conference in my novel, was the heroine of my first novel,
Dying in Other Words
(1981) and had gone downhill sharply by the time she
came back in
(2004). Angela Lamb was a teenager in my second novel
The Burning Book
and a self-centred writer in
Thanks to Dr Tracy Brain and to colleagues and students at Bath Spa University who heard my first public reading from the novel, and encouraged me.
Most of all I would like to pay tribute to the enduring courage and professionalism of my independent publishers, André, Salwa and Lynn Gaspard. Thanks for the warm encouragement and loyalty of my agent Karolina Sutton and my editor Anna Wilson, and for the keen eye and logical brain of Sarah Cleave who brought this manuscript to publication.
Published 2014 by Telegram
Copyright © Maggie Gee 2014
ISBN 978 1 84659 188 4
elSBN 978 1 84659 189 1
Maggie Gee has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
First published 2014 in Great Britain by
26 Westbourne Grove, London W2 5RH
A full CIP record for this book is available from the British Library.
Printed and bound by Bookwell, Finland