Author Topic: Variations on a Theme - literary fiction  (Read 267 times)

Offline Nicholas_Sheppard

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Variations on a Theme - literary fiction
« on: May 10, 2022, 07:22:33 AM »
Hello, everyone. Would be grateful for your thoughts on this developing narrative.


Oscar Wilde was an abiding presence on the streets of London. I saw his likeness overlaid in gaudy Warhol colours on the case of a young woman’s phone. A little further, one of his quotes had been chalked with frilly Victorian serifs on the board outside a pub. Down a lane, on the side of a student’s tote bag, Oscar posed with a volume of verse, and beneath the image was another epigram; though I was unable to make it out before the student, a boy with blue nails and bleached hair, rounded a corner in the direction of Green Park.
   It had become a ritual of mine, each September, to take an early morning walk through St James’s, before heading across to King’s College to meet the new cohort of English undergraduates and deliver my first lecture of the academic year.
        The borough had become gradually more commercial after the war, but retained its history of decadence, its decadence of history: across the street, half in shadow, half in sheer morning sun, was London’s oldest cigar merchant where the Apostle of Aestheticism had bought his cigarettes. I had popped in one afternoon to purchase some cigars for a writer I’d befriended at the Berlin literary festival and found the shop still had Wilde’s ledger in a display case, as well as a High Court letter showing his outstanding balance. I passed by the Royal Arcade, and the corner shop that had once been Goodyear the Florist, where Wilde had purchased his green carnations. Down the road was Hatchards, Wilde’s favourite bookshop, and a few streets further on was The Albemarle Club, where the Marquess of Queensberry had left his calling card with its infamous, misspelt message, “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite,” a provocation that had led to Wilde suing Queensberry for libel.
        Morning light glinted through plane trees and struck upon elegant Caroline facades. In the crisp air I walked past porticos and black fences with finials and curlicues and paused at a building that had once been the site of the St James’s Theatre. On Valentine's Day 1895 the street had been thronged with crowds who had come to watch the arrival of London society and catch a glimpse of Wilde as his carriage drew up outside the theater for the premiere of The Importance of being Earnest. I stood where I guessed, beneath two inches of modern paving stone, Wilde would have stood, in the highest spirits, dressed in a black coat with a velvet collar and seals arrayed on a black Moiré ribbon. I went to a window and looked through into a business office, where a woman was listening to music through headphones as she vacuumed the foyer.
        With the light rising above the buildings, I walked on to Green Park Station, descended the escalators and took the Piccadilly Line to Holborn. Other morning commuters looked blankly out as the train clattered along. I tried not to dwell on the name from the past I was sure I had overheard on the news while getting dressed. I had decided to resist the stir of memories, not yet knowing what feelings to attribute to them. For a second at a time, I thought of a Midlands bedsit, powerful ecstasy pills, tangled sheets in a Westminster Pied-à-terre. I would look for mentions of the news story when I got home.
        I opened my satchel and spent a minute or two glancing over faculty papers. As an Associate Professor I was only teaching two modules, but it was important to stay abreast of the whole syllabus. As always, the freshers would be taking a number of prerequisites: Classical & Biblical Contexts of English Literature, Introducing Literary Theories, and Writing London. All undergraduates were taught by their personal tutor in their first semester, but they could get jittery and seek guidance from other staff, based on reputation, and it wasn’t uncommon for me, in the first weeks, to see the inch of light beneath my office door cut across by dallying shoes for five, or ten seconds – once for five minutes – before a gentle knock. I didn’t mind going over some close textual examination and literary theory and did my best to steer undergraduates from the opaque post-modernism that had reached its self-aggrandising peak when I was an impressionable youngster looking for anything subversive and trendy. It wasn’t until years later that I realised that many of those writers had been poseurs with little to say, or to paraphrase Wilde, they had nothing to say, and said it; but they had been ambitious and savvy enough to collect coteries of young disciples, myself among them.
        The train doors opened at Leicester Square Station and the compartment swelled with commuters. When the train set off again one lad, possibly a student, held on to one of the yellow central poles, so absorbed by his phone he seemed scarcely aware of being in motion.
        With the freshers, I would be conducting a module on The Anti-hero - Alex from A Clockwork Orange, Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair, Pinkie Brown from Brighton Rock, and Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment. Many students had been turned away to keep the numbers manageable. My other module was with the third years and went to the heart of my literary interests: The 19th Century Aesthetic Movement. This paper was also a success with students, who were drawn to its fin de siècle lusciousness and cast of bohemians, lotharios and dandies. 
        I looked at my phone, scrolled through some faculty threads, and paused at a message from my old friend, Molly: Perhaps you saw the news..? There it was, then; the dull certitude, the past needing attending to. I paused, thought I might not reply, then quickly typed in: The one charm of the past is that it is the past. The train slowed, squealing and clangourous, into Holborn Station. I emerged from the stale heat of the Underground and walked past flower and magazine kiosks. Traffic flowed noisily and implacably along Kingsway. A little further, closer to the Virginia Woolf building, the pavement grew crowded. This was one of the best times to catch sight of raw and eager first year English students whose imaginations, and remarkable A Levels had bourn them out of mundane suburbs and set them within a short stroll of Shakespeare’s Globe and the site of the Tabard Inn, where Chaucer’s pilgrims had started out on their journey. Perhaps they had already been to an open day, or been through the park, under the chestnuts, and the plane trees towering tan and gold; or they had signed up for a readers pass at The British Library or taken in the slightly musty interior of the Senate House. I watched one boy dawdle in the morning light, and saw how the occasion and the scene were imbued with significance for him. With a momentary pang, I pictured the outgrown bedrooms left behind in family homes: single beds and writing desks, posters for Bloc Party and Arcade Fire, school photographs, the crinkled spines of prescribed texts, a mood of preoccupation and impatience, a phase of life abruptly muted and stilled.
        I entered the Virginia Woolf building, which housed the faculty’s offices and administration. Rodney was behind the front desk. I walked up and saw his computer screen was mostly taken up with an intricate spreadsheet of room bookings and term dates. In a corner of the screen was a smaller tab playing a livestream of Good Morning Britain on ITV. Rodney was a pillar of the place, always composed despite dealing all day with abstracted and impractical humanities staff who tended to talk around an issue, and known for his drollery which, delivered in a thick Bristol accent, was often lost on newcomers. As far as I knew, no staff had struck a deep enough register of goodwill to refer to him by the Del-Boy-ish variation, “Rodders,” and I certainly had no plans for an attempt.
        ‘Morning, Danny.’
        ‘Good to see you, Rodney.’
        ‘I’ve got a few bits and pieces for you to pick up,’ he said. ‘And one thing for you to sign.’
        ‘Sure.’ I resisted the impulse to tap my fingers lightly on the benchtop, a pet hate of his, among a whole menagerie.
        He produced a faculty document and a pen. ‘There’s also a bit of photocopying that needs doing,’ he said, taking back the document once I had signed it. ‘I know what you’re like, so if you’re willing to wait a minute I’ll do it for you now.’
        ‘Thanks, Rodney.’
        The photocopiers, I had decided, featured state of the art biometric scanners that could measure infinitesimal alterations in heartrate, sweat gland activity and serotonin levels, and if the artificial intelligence, having collated this data, deduced that you were in a hurry or were trying to enter your faculty code, or were attempting anything beyond printing in A4, the photocopiers would automatically display the word error, with a contextless string of numbers. After expressing this to Rodney, almost verbatim, he now took care of most of my printing chores.
‘I’ll be back shortly,’ he said, and left me to linger in the soft glow of the reception area.
        I wandered over to the Virginia Woolf statue, just off the foyer. The faculty, some years ago, had commissioned a Madame Tussaud knock-off and had it installed it in a glass panelled case. Arranged in a sitting position, Virginia Woolf’s face had the waxy pallor and hurtling look of someone who has realised they have taken an excess of recreational drugs and aren’t sure they can sustain the oncoming high. Her eyes were recessed, and her famous aquiline nose had the clumpy texture of a child’s first attempts with papier-mâché, as if, an inch beneath the surface, there might be newspaper and chicken wire. The designers had sought to convey her in the midst of some creative or intellectual insight but had inadvertently captured the most visceral expression of her mental deterioration. She posed like Rodin’s thinker which, to me, gave the impression she was pondering her predicament, as if thinking back with blazing incredulity over how it had come to be that she was presently, and indefinitely, interned in a cramped public display case.
        A student of mine from last year was passing through with a friend. She stopped to say hello.
        ‘Good morning, Professor O’Neal!’
        ‘Hello Vanessa. Ready for another term?’
        She nodded enthusiastically. ‘I’m taking your Aesthetic Movement paper, by the way.’
        ‘Glad to hear it.’
        ‘This is my friend Mabel,’ she said, motioning at the other student. She was a Chinese girl, who I supposed had chosen or been allotted an English Christian name by her parents, a practice with a peculiar inclination, it seemed to me, for quaint names evoking a vanished age. In recent years I had marked the essays of a Bonnie, a Nancy and an Agnes, all aged in their early twenties.
        ‘Hiya,’ Mabel said.
        ‘Looking forward to the year?’
        ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I didn’t get much sleep last night, though.’ And it was true she looked a little bleary-eyed, perhaps still unused to the impassive hum of London at night, though just as likely bothered by the nearer hum of the half-sized fridge in her student accommodation.
        ‘That statue always gives me the creeps,’ Vanessa said. We all turned to look at Virginia Woolf in her glass case, whose eyes tended to follow you around the room, like the Mona Lisa, if reimagined with the bleak ferocity of Francis Bacon.
        ‘I know what you mean,’ I said.
        ‘They didn’t really do her justice,’ Vanessa went on.
        ‘It might have been better,’ I suggested, ‘if they’d modelled her on what she looked like before she went in the river.’
   Vanessa smirked at this little blasphemy. She turned to Mabel. You want to make sure you have a paper with Professor O’Neal. He’s like the teacher in that film Dead Poet’s Society.’
        Mabel nodded and absently pinched the drawstring of her hooded sweater.
        ‘I often wonder what would've happened,’ I said, ‘if the “O Captain, My Captain” scene from Dead Poet's Society had taken place in a computer lab full of wheely chairs.’
        Vanessa beamed at this.   
        ‘Have you purchased all your texts?’ I asked.
        She bobbed her head to say she more or less had.
        ‘I think it’s crazy,’ she said, ‘that you can walk into a bookshop and be charged eight pounds for a paperback novel that took the author a year to complete, but be charged ten pounds for a completely blank notebook.’
        ‘Vanessa, you are a born philosopher.’
        A throat clearing and tap of paper being squared up indicated that Rodney had finished with the photocopying. ‘Well, I’ll likely see you down at The Strand,’ I said to the girls.
        ‘Bye, Professor,’ Vanessa said.

Offline susan-louise

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Re: Variations on a Theme - literary fiction
« Reply #1 on: May 10, 2022, 08:31:01 AM »
Hello, everyone. Would be grateful for your thoughts on this developing narrative.

Hi Nicholas.  I really loved reading this.  Beautifully written.  Love all the little details and tropes.  Outstanding sense of time and place with Holborn, Bloomsbury, Senate House and Kings  etc.

The reflective, almost valedictory voice suggests a yearning, endless fascination with Wilde and his times.  Perhaps your intention?

Some little suggestions in text.  And although this all flows beautifully, there were certain points where, as a reader, I felt you were overwriting.  Might be an idea to avoid this too much.  I indicated where it jarrred.

First two sentences drew me, so well done.     I am sure this novel will  appeal to lovers of literary fiction/ literary history.  I wish you every publishing success.


Oscar Wilde was an abiding presence on the streets of London. I saw his likeness overlaid in gaudy Warhol colours on the case of a young woman’s phone. A little further, one of his quotes had been chalked with frilly Victorian serifs on the board outside a pub. Down a lane, on the side of a student’s tote bag, Oscar posed with a volume of verse, and beneath the image was another epigram; though I was unable to make it out before the student, a boy with blue nails and bleached hair, rounded a corner in the direction of Green Park.
   It had become a ritual of mine, each September, to take an early morning walk through St James’s, before heading across to King’s College to meet the new cohort of English undergraduates and deliver my first lecture of the academic year.
        The borough had become gradually more commercial after the war, but retained its history of decadence, its decadence of history: across the street, half in shadow, half in sheer morning sun, was London’s oldest cigar merchant where the Apostle of Aestheticism had bought his cigarettes. I had popped in one afternoon to purchase some cigars for a writer I’d befriended at the Berlin literary festival and found the shop still had Wilde’s ledger in a display case, as well as a High Court letter showing his outstanding balance. I passed by the Royal Arcade, and the corner shop that had once been Goodyear the Florist, where Wilde had purchased his green carnations. Down the road was Hatchards, Wilde’s favourite bookshop, and a few streets further on was The Albemarle Club, where the Marquess of Queensberry had left his calling card with its infamous, misspelt message, “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite,” a provocation that had led to Wilde suing Queensberry for libel.  (lovely details here...)
        Morning light glinted through plane trees and struck upon illuminated elegant Caroline facades. In the crisp air I walked past porticos and black fences with finials and curlicues and paused at a building that had once been the site of the St James’s Theatre. On Valentine's Day 1895 the street had been thronged with crowds who had come to watch the arrival of London society and catch a glimpse of Wilde as his carriage drew up outside the theater for the premiere of The Importance of being Earnest[/i]. I stood where I guessed, beneath two inches of modern paving stone, Wilde would have stood, in the highest spirits, dressed in a black coat with a velvet collar and seals arrayed on a black Moiré ribbon. I went to a window and looked through into a business office, where a woman was listening to music through headphones as she vacuumed the foyer.
        With the light rising above the buildings, I walked on to Green Park Station, descended the escalators and took the Piccadilly Line to Holborn. Other morning commuters looked blankly out as the train clattered along. I tried not to dwell on the name from the past I was sure I had overheard on the news while getting dressed. I had decided to resist the stir of memories, not yet knowing what feelings to attribute to them. For a second at a time, I thought of a Midlands bedsit, powerful ecstasy pills, tangled sheets in a Westminster Pied-à-terre. I would look for mentions of the news story when I got home.
        I opened my satchel and spent a minute or two glancing over faculty papers. As an Associate Professor I was only teaching two modules, but it was important to stay abreast of the whole syllabus. As always, the freshers would be taking a number of prerequisites: Classical & Biblical Contexts of English Literature, Introducing Literary Theories, and Writing London. All undergraduates were taught by their personal tutor in their first semester, but they could get jittery and seek guidance from other staff, based on reputation, and it wasn’t uncommon for me, in the first weeks, to see the inch of light beneath my office door cut across by dallying shoes for five, or ten seconds – once for five minutes – before a gentle knock. I didn’t mind going over some close textual examination and literary theory and did my best to steer undergraduates from the opaque post-modernism that had reached its self-aggrandising peak when I was an impressionable youngster looking for anything subversive and trendy. It wasn’t until years later that I realised that many of those writers had been poseurs with little to say, or to paraphrase Wilde, they had nothing to say, and said it; but they had been ambitious and savvy enough to collect coteries of young disciples, myself among them.  (again these 19th C details are all very well done...and I presume foreshadow what might follow in the MC's life ahead)
        The train doors opened at Leicester Square Station and the compartment swelled with commuters. When the train set off again one lad, possibly a student, held on to one of the yellow central poles, so absorbed by his phone he seemed scarcely aware of being in motion.
        With the freshers, I would be conducting a module on The Anti-hero - Alex from A Clockwork Orange, Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair, Pinkie Brown from Brighton Rock, and Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment. Many students had been turned away to keep the numbers manageable. My other module was with the third years and went to the heart of my literary interests: The 19th Century Aesthetic Movement. This paper was also a success with students, who were drawn to its fin-de-siècle lusciousness and cast of bohemians, lotharios and dandies. (lovely and so evocative of the period)
        I looked at my phone, scrolled through some faculty threads, and paused at a message from my old friend, Molly: Perhaps you saw the news..? There it was, then; the dull certitude, the past needing attending to. I paused, thought I might not reply, then quickly typed in: The one charm of the past is that it is the past.  I'd perhaps start a new para here.  Otherwise this is swallowed up in the next descriptive scenes.
The train slowed, squealing and clangourous, into Holborn Station. I emerged from the stale heat of the Underground and walked past flower and magazine kiosks. Traffic flowed noisily and implacably along Kingsway. A little further, closer to the Virginia Woolf building, the pavement grew crowded. This was one of the best times to catch sight of raw and eager first year English students whose imaginations, and remarkable A Levels had bourn them out of mundane suburbs and set them within a short stroll of Shakespeare’s Globe and the site of the Tabard Inn, where Chaucer’s pilgrims had started out on their journey. Perhaps they had already been to an open day, or been through the park, under the chestnuts, and the plane trees towering tan and gold; or they had signed up for a readers pass at The British Library or taken in the slightly musty interior of the Senate House. I watched one boy dawdle in the morning light, and saw how the occasion and the scene were imbued with significance for him. With a momentary pang, I pictured the outgrown bedrooms left behind in family homes: single beds and writing desks, posters for Bloc Party and Arcade Fire, school photographs, the crinkled spines of prescribed texts, a mood of preoccupation and impatience, a phase of life abruptly muted and stilled.  (lovely)
        I entered the Virginia Woolf building, which housed the faculty’s offices and administration. Rodney was behind the front desk. I walked up and saw his computer screen was mostly taken up with an intricate spreadsheet of room bookings and term dates. In a corner of the screen was a smaller tab playing a livestream of Good Morning Britain on ITV. Rodney was a pillar of the place, always composed despite dealing all day with abstracted and impractical humanities staff who tended to talk around an issue, and known for his drollery which, delivered in a thick Bristol accent, was often lost on newcomers. As far as I knew, no staff had struck a deep enough register of goodwill to refer to him by the Del-Boy-ish variation, “Rodders,” and I certainly had no plans for an attempt.
        ‘Morning, Danny.’
        ‘Good to see you, Rodney.’
        ‘I’ve got a few bits and pieces for you to pick up,’ he said. ‘And one thing for you to sign.’
        ‘Sure.’ I resisted the impulse to tap my fingers lightly on the benchtop, a pet hate of his, among a whole menagerie.
        He produced a faculty document and a pen. ‘There’s also a bit of photocopying that needs doing,’ he said, taking back the document once I had signed it. ‘I know what you’re like, so if you’re willing to wait a minute I’ll do it for you now.’
        ‘Thanks, Rodney.’
        The photocopiers, I had decided, featured state of the art biometric scanners that could measure infinitesimal alterations in heartrate, sweat gland activity and serotonin levels, and if the artificial intelligence, having collated this data, deduced that you were in a hurry or were trying to enter your faculty code, or were attempting anything beyond printing in A4, the photocopiers would automatically display the word error, with a contextless string of numbers. After expressing this to Rodney, almost verbatim, he now took care of most of my printing chores.
‘I’ll be back shortly,’ he said, and left me to linger in the soft glow of the reception area.
        I wandered over to the Virginia Woolf statue, just off the foyer. The faculty, some years ago, had commissioned a Madame Tussaud knock-off and had it installed it in a glass panelled case. Arranged in a sitting position, Virginia Woolf’s face had the waxy pallor and hurtling look of someone who has realised they have taken an excess of recreational drugs and aren’t isn't  sure the can sustain the oncoming high can be sustained (I think this syntax works better). Her eyes were recessed, and her famous aquiline nose had the clumpy texture of a child’s first attempts with papier-mâché, as if, an inch beneath the surface, there might be newspaper and chicken wire. The designers had sought to convey her in the midst of some creative or intellectual insight but had inadvertently captured the most visceral expression of her mental deterioration. She posed like Rodin’s thinker which, to me, gave the impression she was pondering her predicament, as if thinking back with blazing incredulity over how it had come to be that she was presently, and indefinitely, interned in a cramped public display case.  (I Love your writing but sometimes it seems you are overwriting.  I know you're not, but that is what is conveyed.  So I'd be inclined to tighten some of this purple prose up.)
        A student of mine from last year was passing through with a friend. She stopped to say hello.
        ‘Good morning, Professor O’Neal!’
        ‘Hello Vanessa. Ready for another term?’
        She nodded enthusiastically. ‘I’m taking your Aesthetic Movement paper, by the way.’
        ‘Glad to hear it.’
        ‘This is my friend Mabel,’ she said, motioning at the other student. She was a Chinese girl, who I supposed had chosen or been allotted an English Christian name by her parents, a practice with a peculiar inclination, it seemed to me, for quaint names evoking a vanished age. In recent years I had marked the essays of a Bonnie, a Nancy and an Agnes, all aged in their early twenties.
        ‘Hiya,’ Mabel said.
        ‘Looking forward to the year?’
        ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I didn’t get much sleep last night, though.’ And it was true she looked a little bleary-eyed, perhaps still unused to the impassive hum of London at night, though just as likely bothered by the nearer hum of the half-sized fridge in her student accommodation.
        ‘That statue always gives me the creeps,’ Vanessa said. We all turned to look at Virginia Woolf in her glass case, whose eyes tended to follow you around the room, like the Mona Lisa, if reimagined with the bleak ferocity of Francis Bacon.
        ‘I know what you mean,’ I said.
        ‘They didn’t really do her justice,’ Vanessa went on.
        ‘It might have been better,’ I suggested, ‘if they’d modelled her on what she looked like before she went in the river.’
   Vanessa smirked at this little blasphemy. She turned to Mabel. You want to make sure you have a paper with Professor O’Neal. He’s like the teacher in that film Dead Poet’s Society.’
        Mabel nodded and absently pinched the drawstring of her hooded sweater.
        ‘I often wonder what would've happened,’ I said, ‘if the “O Captain, My Captain” scene from Dead Poet's Society had taken place in a computer lab full of wheely chairs.’
        Vanessa beamed at this.   
        ‘Have you purchased all your texts?’ I asked.
        She bobbed her head to say she more or less had.
        ‘I think it’s crazy,’ she said, ‘that you can walk into a bookshop and be charged eight pounds for a paperback novel that took the author a year to complete, but be charged ten pounds for a completely blank notebook.’
        ‘Vanessa, you are a born philosopher.’
        A throat clearing and tap of paper being squared up indicated that Rodney had finished with the photocopying. ‘Well, I’ll likely see you down at The Strand,’ I said to the girls.
        ‘Bye, Professor,’ Vanessa said.
« Last Edit: May 10, 2022, 08:53:26 AM by susan-louise »

Offline Nicholas_Sheppard

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Re: Variations on a Theme - literary fiction
« Reply #2 on: May 10, 2022, 09:07:37 PM »
Hey, thanks - sincerely. Literally everyone of your nips and tucks subtly improves the text overall, and I needed a voice to rein in some of my more purple impulses and at least get them down to an acceptable lavender. So glad its pleasantly evocative.