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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Out Stealing Timber IX

One of the problems of writing a novel is the question of continuity. One cannot know what form the novel will take until it is written, until it has revealed itself and allowed itself to be formed, shaped into its final edit.

Often the writing does not form a continuous narrative. One maybe has an ending of sorts, perhaps a beginning, or a vague idea of theme and one or two telescoped scenes revealing character or dramatic action. It never progresses from A to Z in a seamless fashion.

Usually this does not matter, because the novel is not presented to the world until it is completed.

But when it is written and published online in a serialized way, it is not finished, and what is published or posted are fragments of a novel, some of which may find their way into the final draft, and others which certainly will not.

Does this mean that a novel posted piecemeal on the internet is not quite a novel, but instead is a picture of the construction of a novel?


When the bread was in the oven Thea and Kristian left the old woman in her chair by the kitchen door and went over the field and through the trees towards the circumcised Jew’s house. Neither of them had a memory of the circumcised Jew, though people said Thea would have seen him before he died, when she was a small child. On one of Kristian’s earlier visits, perhaps eight years ago, the two of them had found the house and invented stories about the strange person who had lived here.

The Jew had walked to Norway from Poland. He had walked for over a year, fleeing some terrible misfortune. Perhaps his wife and babies had been slaughtered. Or it could have been that he wasn’t married and his parents and brothers and sisters had been burned to death by robbers or patriots. Whatever it was will never be known because the man spoke of it to no one. When he first arrived he could speak no known language, and later, when he’d learned enough words of Norwegian to get by, he still did not tell his story. He would only say that it was something he did not wish to remember.

‘How did they know he was circumcised?’ Kristian asked.

‘They say all Jews are like that.’

‘And Jesus, too,’ Kristian said.

‘How do you mean?’

‘Jesus was circumcised on the first day of the year, when he was eight days old.’

‘Can that be true?’ said Thea, more to herself than to the young man by her side.

When the circumcised Jew’s house came in sight they slowed their steps. It was a ruin now, with no door and the roof had shifted, as if getting ready to fall into the house’s interior. The house cast a shadow over itself, the air around it felt clammy and the breeze whistled and sang a dirge-like tone which stood you back on your heels. Thea never came here alone, and if Kristian were not with her now she would not venture closer.

‘Maybe that’s why some say he was a Christian,’ Thea said. ‘My grandmother said he was a Jew, no doubt about that, but that he was a Christian man all the same.’

‘Because of the healings?’ Kristian asked.

The circumcised Jew played a Jew’s Harp and the old folk said he could put some people into a trance with it. Other’s called on him when their relatives were ill, and the Jew would bring his instrument and sit outside the sick woman’s room and play his weird tunes and the next day the woman would be healed and out again in the world, hunting mushrooms in the woods or hanging out her washing.

The church didn’t like him, though, and a succession of preachers told the people not to associate with him. And they proved to be right in the end, after he died and they took away his body one of the preachers found a dead baby in a bottle in his house, pickled in cider vinegar.

‘That might just be a rumour,’ Thea said. ‘Could’ve been anything in that bottle. And where would he have got a baby, anyway?’

But the speculations all added to the mystery of the circumcised Jew, now so long dead that few could really remember him. And when Thea thought about him, or when she stood, as now with Kristian in front of the old man’s house, she had to listen to the small flutterings inside herself and reflect that much of her life was fashioned from the unknown and the unknowable.

One Response to “Out Stealing Timber IX”

  1. “One of the problems of writing a novel is the question of continuity. One cannot know what form the novel will take until it is written, until it has revealed itself…”

    Do all people write this way though? Some must plan the story in full before they write?

    I’m writing a children’s story at the moment and having the fully-formed story planned out in my head was actually the thing that finally got me motivated enough to write it down. Whereas the idea of looking at a blank page and seeing where my thoughts take me… I just know I’d never get a book finished that way.

    I suppose it’s horses for courses, or maybe courses for horses 🙂

    jb says: Hi Neil. Maybe we are approaching the territory where we have to define what a novel is. In my time I’ve written in many different ways, including the kind of planning you mention. The main problem with planning “the story in full before” writing is that you find yourself cramming character and incident into a pre-defined space, which may work adequately for a formula novel, but never sits well with an imaginative novel, or with something that relies for its power on language.
    The argument for not planning everything out before hand is that it enables you to invoke that magical ingredient which is composed of language and memory, which is perhaps what Tennessee Williams meant when he said: “All you have to do is close your eyes and wait for the symbols.”