What I am Reading

Words to transport me across generations, centuries, continents and viewpoints – such is the mastery of writer Arnold Zable in his acclaimed memoir Jewels and Ashes.

What began as a “case study” for my Master’s exegesis – too dry a term by far for this riveting narrative and beautifully told story – became a lesson in the art of traversing narrative time. I chose Zable’s work because I’ve long admired him and his writing and have attended various of his talks and his inspirational Painting with Words workshop. (You know how every now and again you get that feeling your writing has upped a level, well, I believe this workshop prompted one of those shifts. But, I digress.)

With my next novel unstarted, at the time, but swirling in my mind, I wanted to write my exegesis to inform on an aspect of its writing. I can already see the structure of my new novel forming as a complex narrative where I plan to show three characters’ viewpoints and visit them in different time spans, on different continents and be able to crisscross between them all. Hence my exegesis topic: Traversing Narrative Time, Space and Viewpoint. Part of the reflective practice in my uni subject’s title is to look to the masters to see how they’ve achieved such techniques. Zable was my first choice, though I also studied Gabriel Garcia Marquez who is the master Zable says he studied to learn his artistry of transitions.

Jewels and Ashes traces the author’s pilgrimage to the birthplace of his Jewish parents, (in Bialystok, Poland), crisscrossing the decades of the twentieth century to uncover the truth and fate of his extended family. When I first read the book several years ago, I marvelled at how Zable showed history while weaving his family background around his 1986 journey to Poland, but I didn’t really understand what he was doing craftwise, how he was doing it or why. I just knew whatever he was doing transported me on one amazing journey. Mind you the way Zable paints his words in such rich detail and description transports you with seamless ease too.

Of course, I’ve read many novels featuring multiple viewpoints, time and places, but I’d always been keenly aware of the transitions from one to the next. Some jolt you out of the story with a clunk, or shifts only occur at the end of chapters or storybreaks, whereas Zable weaves into the next event, place, time with seamless transitions, be they in mid-sentence or mid-paragraph.

How does he do it?

Through my study of Jewels and Ashes, and Arnold’s own explanation of his technique, I understand him to effect many of his transitions by connecting story fragments or threads using subtle and well placed links. Closer study of the text reveals these to be both tangible and intangible associations, such as events, trees, photographs and letters, and/or sensory connections, such as memories, smells and sounds. For the purpose of my exegesis I extracted the examples below to demonstrate:

  • Decades later,… (p. 8 ) a simple flashforward (prolepsis)
  • We leap through the centuries (p. 46) transition bringing narrative forward two-hundred years
  • As a child I would often gaze at his portrait in the Bialystok photo album… (p. 46) transition back through flashback (analepsis)
  • Father has now warmed to the subject. He draws me with him to Nieronies Lane. (p. 76) transition of place
  • Years later, when Mother fell on a Melbourne street, the memory of another fall, in a time and place far removed, came flooding back. (p. 88) incident as link to another time
  • At 4 a.m. on summer mornings, throughout the twenties… (p. 93) connects one paragraph later through the link of season to On a summer morning in 1986…
  • Above all, Father recalls the seasons (p.139) a memory and seasonal transition of time and place.

Arnold Zable is not only a wonderful storyteller, but a generous humanitarian, and I was lucky enough on two chance occasions during the writing of my exegesis to have opportunity to speak to him and ask him about his practice when writing his memoir. Arnold told me he did not plot the narrative of Jewels and Ashes, but followed his physical journey and allowed the threads of the greater story to emerge instinctively. However organically these evolved, the chronological discontinuity and disruption of story serve to build a sense of mounting dread even in a fact-based narrative where the reader knows the holocaust history:

‘At Linowe station the trains were drawn up by the platform, waiting. The time-tabling was precise, the organisation efficient. The doors of the cattle wagons slid to a close on entire families, crammed together, robbed of light, air and hope. Soon after they were on the move: a journey of several hundred kilometres southwest, across the breadth of Poland, to a town called Auschwitz’ (p.137).

The switch to a new focus in the next paragraph serves to discontinue the narrative and heighten tension even with foreknowledge of the horror coming.

This post offers only a glimpse of one of the multiple narrative devices available to traverse time, space and viewpoint to best dramatic and emotional effect. Regardless of whether you’re interested in the writing craft, I urge you to read Jewels and Ashes. You’re in for a treat, a harsh history beautifully told and one that must never pass out of memory. Honour goes to Zable and all those it recalls.

It is so true what they say about  the value of reading as a writer and what you can learn. Though I’ve never studied a topic quite so intently (or academically) before, and found the initial drafting of my exegesis extremely challenging, I can honestly say what I’ve learned is invaluable. If I can begin the writing of my new novel and in some small way emulate the beauty of the transitions of Arnold Zable in his writing, I’ll  be thrilled. What once seemed impossible, now seems achievable.

I hope this post excites the idea of some ‘narrative’ time travel in your writing. If so, I’d love you to let me know or leave any thoughts you’d like to add in the comments.

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Alison Reynolds" alt="Alison Reynolds">

Alison Reynolds

Great post, Chris.
I loved the examples you gave from Arnold Zable’s work.
He does those transitions so elegantly and easily.
Good luck, not that you need it , so maybe happy journeying into your new novel.
Can’t wait to see what emerges.

November 9, 2011 at 7:54 pm
    christinemareebell" alt="christinemareebell">


    Thank you, Alison.
    I only wish I could have explored in the post how Arnold alternates tenses and the effect on the narrative. “Jewels and Ashes” is a masterpiece on par, I believe, with Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude”. It’s hard to do justice to how Arnold Zable picks exactly the right connections between his story threads. I initially imagined they must be drafted and redrafted but, thinking again, I totally get how when into the mood and moment of story the stunning connections that present surprise even the writer.
    Thank you for your confidence and good wishes re my new novel. I’m excited at the possibilities, but daunted at them too. As in, can I carry it off? Now, I feel much more equipped to try.

    November 9, 2011 at 8:39 pm
Karen Tyrrell" alt="Karen Tyrrell">

Karen Tyrrell

Hi Chris,
I was impressed my the examples of time and place you offered from Arnold Zable’s novel and the succinct way you explained them.

Smooth time changes are one of the most challenging facets of writing for an author to master. Recently I expanded flashbacks in my memoir to create five new chapters. it wasn’t easy. But I did it, strengthening my memoir.

I wish you every success in your historical novel 🙂

November 10, 2011 at 9:17 pm
    christinemareebell" alt="christinemareebell">


    Hi Karen

    I was lucky with having so many wonderful examples to choose from in “Jewels and Ashes”.

    Great news that you’ve expanded your flashbacks and are feeling so good about what they’ve added to your memoir. Best wishes for the success of your campaign to see it published and your bravery in telling your story.


    November 11, 2011 at 9:05 am
Lorraine" alt="Lorraine">


I really want to re-read this post- so much vital information- thanks for sharing Chris.

November 11, 2011 at 7:39 pm
Peter Taylor" alt="Peter Taylor">

Peter Taylor

Many thanks for this, Chris. I have a historical creative biography in progress (written from the character’s brother’s imagined PoV) with a few sizeable gaps in the time line. I’ve completed a 15,000 word sequence of events – so it’s time to flesh it out. Now, do I add Zable’s work on the list of things to read before I start, or read it while I’m writing mine or before the editing? At some time I have to stop research and get some words written! Hope the words flow freely in your new novel.
All best wishes

November 11, 2011 at 10:21 pm
    christinemareebell" alt="christinemareebell">


    Hi Peter

    I would absolutely suggest you read Zable’s work, before you start, particularly Jewels and Ashes. Much as I know you need to move on to the writing, from my experience, through having done this research, I’m hoping that crafting of the links, and moments to best use utilise some other fabulous narrative techniques I’ve learned during the study, will evolve more organically in the writing rather than having to go back and edit them in later. Then again, when the urge is there to write, I say go for it, because you don’t want to stifle words that are burning to emerge. Perhaps read on the days when they’re more reluctant.

    Good luck with your biography. I love the sound of it. Fleshing out should be the fun bit where your creativity can really play (within the limits of possible truth, I mean).

    Best wishes,

    November 12, 2011 at 8:41 am
Peter Taylor" alt="Peter Taylor">

Peter Taylor

Many thanks, Chris – I’ll take that advice, and if you are prepapred to share more, I will look forward to reading of other discoveries you’ve made during your studies.

The main plot of my biography is clear – but some information for details is hard to discover – like, at what age did children who lived in the middle of London in the 1820’s learn to ride a horse, and who would have given the lessons? Girls and boys at the same age? Were they taught in the cobbled streets (bit hard if you fell off, and embarrasing if you were wealthy) or in Hyde Park? What sort of carriage would a well-off family have owned if they had 5 teenaged children? Would they have used it to travel 400 metres to church or would they have walked? If they were travelling 30 miles, how often would they have stopped to rest?

In 200 years time, when people are writing historical fiction about 2011, I wonder what they will wish that more of us had written about?

November 12, 2011 at 7:09 pm
    christinemareebell" alt="christinemareebell">


    My pleasure, Peter. No doubt some other techniques will come up for discussion in the future. You raise a fabulous question, what indeed will readers in 2211 want to know? Though with the volume of audio, digital imagery etc produced now, and probably still preserved in 200 years, it makes me wonder more, what they will make of us and life in our time?

    Have you thought about seeking the advice of a specialist historian through one of the British universities? It’s the personal contacts I’ve found most invaluable.

    I also found a lot of information in the local newspaper archives. The “for sale” advertisements and classifieds particularly helped to show rentals of the day, wages for maids, boarding house charges, and dance lesson costs etc. You may find some hints there, or from novels written in the era; I’m thinking here of Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey and the works of Jane Austen.

    If some questions remain unanswerable, you could add a disclaimer in the acknowledgments and use some poetic licence. I love historical research, but the search for minute details is so very time consuming. Blew out my timeline incredibly, but without it I wouldn’t have a book with nearly the same colour and texture. Good luck in your search for answers.
    Best wishes,

    November 13, 2011 at 2:35 pm
      Peter Taylor" alt="Peter Taylor">

      Peter Taylor

      Thanks again, Chris. Great ideas.
      In a museum somewhere there are probably machines and tools that 19th century engravers used to create the pictures for books such as those of Sir Walter Scott, all shading created from fine parallel lines – but I doubt if there’s a person alive who could use those machines to create a forgery of one of the pictures using the same techniques that the early artists and printers used. Similarly, no one could forge the art and printing plates to create a copy of an 1860’s Punch Magazine or a Caldecott book printed from wood-blocks – because though printing machine manuals might exist, the artisans’ skills and tecniques were never written about in enough detail or passed on because they were so commonplace. And when a ‘better’ printing method was devised, no one was interested in the old ways.
      How many writers of books about the 1960’s ever describe(d) exactly how a slide-rule was used as a calculator? And before that, there were circular calulators with spinning discs. That’s not long ago – though you’re right, there are manuals for them in the archives and probaly film – and some collectors and fanatics. But people born in the 80’s would not normally have an idea of their use. I’ve already forgotten how, in the mid-1970’s, when I wanted to compute some figures, I somehow generated a piece of punched tape that was mailed to the nearest computer (that filled a building) 20 miles away, and the answer came back a week later (now possible on a $20 calculator). But how did I get that punched tape? And in 1982, I taught computing in DOS code. Couldn’t do it now!
      All best wishes

      November 14, 2011 at 8:04 am
christinemareebell" alt="christinemareebell">


Hi Peter
You’re right, it’s the little things and how we went about them we forget to pass on. They pass out of own minds, into memory, and there they stay unless someone or something sparks a recall. Once we’re gone…
I remember telex machines in the late seventies. Typing up the message and the tape emerging with the code (tiny holes punched into it like ticker tape) and then dialling the recipient’s number on the far side of the country or world and then the tape feeding through as the message was going. What a long-winded process compared to zapping out an email.
Our first work computer in 1978 (Wang – DOS) had its own air-conditioned room, and took twenty minutes to boot up with a separate disk portal, a metre square at least and disks about 60cm round. Took another fifteen to twenty mins to shut down at night. No one was allowed into the room except the operators, Manager and MD. It was so whiz-bang, we never thought beyond it or conceived one day we’d be able to do the same on a tablet. People can read about the old computers being huge and use of telex machines. It’s the smaller details of knowing about the boot up and feeding through the telex tape that are lost and we don’t usually think to record.
Thanks for the great discussion, Peter.
Best wishes

November 14, 2011 at 8:42 am
Angela Sunde" alt="Angela Sunde">

Angela Sunde

Lorraine is so right. I will be re-reading this post. It was absolutely fascinating. Hopefully you’ll publish your exegesis or a fuller article.

November 24, 2011 at 2:03 pm
    christinemareebell" alt="christinemareebell">


    Thank you, Angela. Glad you enjoyed it. I do hope to write a fuller article in the future. My exegesis as it stands is probably a little too specific to my own project, though the devices and techniques covered are extremely fascinating and innovative. Since there seems to be an interest I may post that fuller article in the New Year. 🙂


    November 25, 2011 at 1:06 pm

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