Cavtat – Croatia, July 4th 2010
It is a busy day in Cavtat, a small, one time fishing village in Croatia close to Dubrovnik. The village is clustered around the harbor. Restaurants and a few simple shops line the wide street, which at each end folds in around the bay with a wide welcoming, and protective embrace. The village escalates away from the harbor up steep and narrow pathways. There are ancient stone stairways leading to old homes, new homes, and some shells of buildings – some of the few buildings to have been bombed in the war. Cavtat, valued as a thriving tourist destination, didn’t come under the same level of attack as other Croatian villages and towns.
The Serbians hoped that at the end of the war, they would slip into the ease of an established tourism industry. Cavtat’s main street is dotted with benches overlooking the harbor. It is a wonderful place in which to sit, people watch, and simply let the world go by.
There are yachts tied up in Cavtat harbor, and smaller sailing boats are anchored out in the bay. The yachts vary from the gin palaces, some belonging to the rich and famous, to sturdy wooden sail boats. Elegant sail boats, large and sophisticated enough to navigate tough seas. All of the yachts gleam with the constant attention of crew. A couple of crisp white-starched crew members stand either side of the raised gang planks on the majestic yachts. Their job to prevent trespassers from boarding, or loitering too long. When passing by these yachts I have to stop to admire the artistic flower arrangements displayed on deck. Exotic flowers that I can only imagine having in my home.
Several tour busses arrived this morning bringing day trippers, all of them securely labeled. There’s red sticker tourist group 1. Red sticker tourist group 5. Red flag carrying tour guide 1305. Blue sticker tourist …… you get the picture.
There aren’t any beaches in Cavtat. Not real ones at least. There are areas of shingle from which you can enter the water if you are brave. There are concrete slab fake-beaches lined with plastic sun loungers. Early each morning competitive sun bathers pop up here and there before breakfast to plonk their reservation-towels on their prize chairs in the highly sought after front row before the stage of swimmers and yachts. The best places to swim are not so crowded. If you climb around the rocks you will find relatively easy places in which to enter the water. The reward for your stumbling will be worth it.
If you are like me you will walk along a trail away from the centre of the village to a secluded cove. You will scramble cautiously down craggy rocks to make your final descent into the sea via a slimy green and black seaweed slide. Be careful though. One day I misjudged the rock I wanted to push against getting back out of the sea and I accidentally stood on a sea urchin. It was a painful experience. Five weeks later I’m working the last spikes out of the sole of my foot. I’m happiest when I am in the sea. I can swim and snorkel for hours. I’ll tread water quite far from shore – far enough to worry my mother!
Mum and I don’t see each other all that often, although we have been seeing each other more frequently over the past couple of years. Living six thousand miles apart makes visits infrequent, but to be cherished when they occur. Mum came to the beach with me one evening in France. Mum wanted to watch me swim. It was very sweet and amusing. Mum got it into her head that she needed to be there, at the water’s edge, just in case anything happened to me. This is my non-swimmer mother we are talking about. “Mum,” I said. “What are you going to do if I start to drown? Shout 999 or 911 into the sky and hope someone hears?” We laughed out loud. No one heard us. It was the first of many laughs we would have during our time together in Beaulieu.
Back to Croatia. The first time I came to Croatia was in 2008. Alexandra and I went on holiday to Cavtat with mum and Hugo. It was the second to last holiday Hugo, Papa, to Alexandra, would be likely to go on abroad. I found Dubrovnik and Cavtat in particular, to be beautiful and intriguing. Tourism was just beginning to grow again following the Serbian war. During that first trip to Croatia, we rented a car and did day trips to Montenegro and Bosnia Herzegovina. The once communist country of Yugoslavia no longer exists. While rebuilding is in full throw, the countries of Bosnia Herzegovina, Montenegro, Croatia and Serbia, still flaunt their battle scars. The United States and some of the European communities are providing financial aid and helping to rebuild and restore cities and institutions. There are signs in lots of places acknowledging help from around the world.
During our 2008 holiday here, I missed Ken. I kept thinking about how Ken might react to the places we visited. I wanted to hear his take on the history and politics of the region. Certainly Ken would have opinions on the pre and post war cultural and geographic divisions. Ken makes sense of things in interesting ways. It is fascinating to see how his mind works, how he contextualizes people and situations. Take this photo for example.
Ken and I used to sail a lot. We would radio ahead to islands we planned to anchor at to ask the port master on which days cruise ships were due to dock. Need I say more?
I had already left home on my 8 week trip when Ken and I decided to go to Croatia together. This is how it really went. Ken was happy to leave planning a holiday to me. He’s very busy at work, and he trusts me! Ken and I exchanged a series of emails. Before I left California, I was set on us going to the Channel Islands between England and France. We would go to Jersey, Guernsey and Sark. I had read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Marianne Shaffer and Annie Barrows, and fell in love with Guernsey from the book. More about that later. I’ve never been to the Channel Islands before, but the book and a documentary on the islands ignited my interest. Ken was all for it. Then I changed my mind. Ken has never been to the Greek islands. I’ve spent a lot of holidays in the islands. I wanted to share this experience with him. Ken thought it was a great idea. “Sounds like fun,” he said. Then I thought about how gorgeous the Amalfi Coast is in early summer and emailed Ken to say that I’d changed my mind. Again, Ken happily went along for the ride. In the next email, I told Ken I’d changed my mind and that we really did need to go to Greece. That settled it. Until, I sent Ken one last email saying that I’d booked us on a flight to Dubrovnik, and that I wouldn’t book any accommodation in Croatia. We would find where to stay when we got there. With the exception of not knowing where we would be staying until we got there, Ken was happy.
I’ll tell you more about the holiday in a little while. For now I want to tell you about a book.
Away, by Amy Bloom.
Away, is the first of Amy Bloom’s books that I’ve read. Basic that this might sound, one of the things I really liked about the book is that I could pick it up, put it down for sometimes a few days, and then pick it up and carry on reading without losing a beat. Of course, I’d much rather not to have taken extended breaks from reading Away. Travelling in the way that I have been has led to a lot of interruptions.
I love the characters that Bloom creates. They come to life on the page and almost jump out into your life. Away tells the story of Lillian Leyb, a twenty-two year old Jewish immigrant. This is a story about a long journey in physical terms and also in terms of emotional growth, pain and acceptance. Lillian’s life is full of challenges. We meet Lillian on New York’s East Side. Lillian has left her home town of Turov, where she witnessed her husband and parents being slaughtered in the Russian Pogrom. Lillian, determined to save her daughter, Sophie, from death, passed the little girl out of the house through a window. Lillian told Sophie where to hide, and when she couldn’t find her, a neighbor said she had seen Sophie drifting down the river. Later the same neighbor said she had seen the ribbon from Sophie’s hair attached to a twig along the river side. Devastated by her loss, Sophie journeyed to the United States where she first lived with relatives and obtained a job as a seamstress for a theatre company.
Bloom paints a vivid picture of Lillian’s life in New York. She gives us insight into the decisions Lillian must make in order to survive. Whilst working as a seamstress at the Goldfaden Yiddish Theatre in New York, Lillian becomes the mistress of lead actor Meyer Bernstein. She moves into a luxurious apartment provided by Meyer, and she experiences luxuries she would never have imagined. Lillian also becomes the interest of Meyer’s father, Reuben. While Reuben would love to keep Lillian as his mistress, he encourages Meyer to continue to work on his relationship with Lillian. Meyer is gay, and potentially a significant embarrassment to the Bernstein family. A marriage to Lillian would solve a lot of problems.
Lillian’s epic journey begins with the arrival of a female cousin from Turov who tells Lillian that Sophie is not in fact dead, but alive, and living with an old neighborhood family who has taken Sophie with them to Siberia. It is during this journey that you will come to know Lillian, the mother who loves her daughter unconditionally. It is during this part of the story that you will look at motherhood, at parenthood, and ask yourself to what lengths are you willing to go for the love of your child. This was certainly my experience. I was with Lillian all the way. I would have gone through everything she went through and more in search of my child. Lillian decides to leave her life with the Bernstein’s behind. With the help of her only friend, Yaakov Shimmelman, a tailor, actor, play-write, Lillian embarks on her journey to Siberia. Treating Lillian as a daughter, Yaakov does his best to secure Lillian as secure a passage as possible from New York, through Chicago and Seattle, along her journey toward her daughter. The hardships Lillian endures along the way are for you to read about. Suffice to say, there are users, abusers, African prostitutes, and kind and generous people.
Bloom writes about a character devoid of self-pity. In my life I claim there is no room for the victim mentality. I indulged enough in that in my early twenties. Instead, Bloom illuminates shock, tolerance, empathy and compassion. What a gift for a writer to be able to give us.
As a writer reading Away, I encountered issues to do with craft and style that made me think about my own writing. I think that writers more than most readers tend to analyze how a story is constructed. Creating a story is like building a house. A good foundation is essential. Sturdy framing creates the bones on which our story will hang. Our individuality as writers/interior designers will put our own personal stamp on the story. I love color and texture – the stuff that leads us from one scene, one room to another. It is the way we craft a story that moves our readers along – hopefully riveted, unable to put our stories down.
When we tell a story, whether it is one we tell informally at the dinner table to family and friends, or we have had the good fortune to have had published, (bring it on!) we tell our stories from certain points of view. Point of view is a significant element of craft. In Away, Bloom has written from the point of view of the 3rd person omniscient narrator. (OMG – we are into technical jargon now.) Bloom defines the omniscient narrator as coming from the perspective of “God’s eye on this world.” What this means is that the omniscient narrator sees everything, and knows everything about the story and the people of the story. Writing the story from the point of view of the omniscient narrator means that the story can move around through space and time, hopping back and forth from present to future to past. The narrator has the inside scoop on the experiences of each of the characters and events that impact our experience of the story.
As a writer I have mixed feelings about the “omniscient narrator.” For the most part I’ve found omniscient narrators in the stories and novels I’ve read to be frustrating know-it-alls. I’m biased from the start judging these narrators to be arrogant and pompous. I’ve tried to embrace the omniscient narrator writing on the rare occasion from this point of view – probably unsuccessfully! Amy Bloom changed my mind. I got over my initial suspicions about this omniscient narrator and gradually appreciated the strengths this point of view brought to the story. This point of view works beautifully in Away. I blame being post-menopausal for a lot of things – conveniently for my poor short-term memory! I struggle with novels flooded with characters. Sometimes at the beginning of a novel I have to make a list of the characters as they appear and jot down something about each one so that I stand a chance of recognizing him or her as she/he emerges in the narrative. All too often, we the readers are left hanging, wondering what happened to someone who has ignited our curiosity. Bloom satisfies her readers in this regard. Using the omniscient narrator, Bloom dispenses of each of her characters when they have served their purpose, wrapping up each of their stories by letting us know what happens to each in the future. The reader is satisfied knowing how it turns out for all of the characters Bloom has brought to life, even when the characters don’t know how their lives have turned out.
Pacing a story is another significant element of craft. ‘Pacing’ is a challenge all writers face. The last thing we want is for our reader to fall asleep, lose his/her place in the story, only to return to confusion and airy gaps such as those left behind in place of the milk teeth carried away by the tooth fairy. (No reward left behind.) Neither do we want our reader to flick ahead through the pages, anxious to get to the resolution of the story. I’d sleep better many a night if I counted the number of books I did that to instead of counting sheep. Now there’s a thought. (Note to self, try ditching the sleeping pills.) Again, using the third person omniscient point of view, the story moves along with the delicacy and sensitivity of a piano accompanist to an accomplished singer.
Throughout this story, we laugh and we cry with Lillian. I love how Bloom uses irony in this story. Employing the third person omniscient narrator in Away facilitates the effectiveness of irony in the story. The irony is so natural and yet surprising. I laughed and nodded when I least expected to.
Another thing about craft – when we read a story we need to be able to trust the narrator, unless of course, an ‘unreliable narrator’ is essential to the story. Even then, we need to be able to trust the author to ground us accurately in time, history, geography, culture, politics, society and place. I’m always impressed by such an author. The author who accurately contextualizes the story reminds me constantly of the importance of in-depth research. Skipping out on detailed research is a false economy and dishonors the reader. If the writer neglects this attention to detail he loses the confidence of the reader. If you read the acknowledgments in a book you will often be able to see just how much research an author has put into it. You will also get an idea about the extent of the author’s commitment to verisimilitude. I applaud Amy Bloom for this. It is important that writers recognize and acknowledge in print the people and institutions that have helped and supported them in their writing. If you read these acknowledgements you are likely to see the importance of libraries. In these times of economic struggle, please remember to support your public libraries.
Croatia was a great place in which to finish reading this book. I decided to leave Away in Cavtat in the hope someone else might enjoy reading it. I wrote a note asking any finders of the book to email me, or send me a postcard letting me know where they found the book and what they thought of it. I asked that the finder might leave the book for someone else to discover it. I left the book on a bench overlooking the Adriatic on my way to dinner. When I returned from dinner, the book was gone. I do hope I hear from the finder.
Thank you, Amy Bloom for such a wonderful read. Thanks too, to Steve Heller and Tara Ison who helped me to understand and appreciate the elements of craft that made Away so stimulating to me both as a reader and as a writer.