The voices in my head - in Bed Table Door

Csilla Toldy

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Csilla Toldy is a writer and translator from Hungary. Her writing appeared in literary magazines and anthologies and in book form in three poetry pamphlets: Red Roots - Orange Sky (2013), The Emigrant Woman’s Tale (2015) and Vertical Montage (2018), as short fiction in Angel Fur and other stories (2019) and as a novel with the title Bed Table Door (2023), the winner of the Desmond Elliot Residency. Csilla creates film poems as a visual artist. Her award-winning work has been screened at international festivals.

Bed Table Door is my debut novel and it had a long journey and more than one course of metamorphosis. It grew organically from script to novel and it had three different titles. It was tenacious because, I would say the story wanted to be told.

In script writing we talk about the “world” of a character and in the novel, too, a “world” is created. Consequently, we might think of the author as someone who plays “god”. The narrative technique, omniscience, is a technical term for this. I discussed this with an editor from Penguin at the Write Now Programme I attended with Bed Table Door (then called Finding Freedom) once upon a time in Newcastle upon Tyne, and he said that he thought my novel was written in omniscience. I was surprised, for I thought not. Then he brought up As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, which is said to be a classic example of a stream of consciousness. He thought I could learn from Faulkner. I agreed. As I Lay Dying is a story told with multiple voices in the first person and yes, I have a few different voices in my novel, too, in the third person. Confusion is a good place to start and we agreed that rules are there to be broken. Oh, yes, and Faulkner claimed that he had written the novel overnight within six weeks and he never changed a word in it. - It’s a pity I did not know this at the time in Newcastle, it could have been a good piece of witticism thrown into the conversation with the editor, whose job is to call the writer’s attention to places in the text where changing words and sentences is necessary, in their opinion.

Narrative techniques apart, let us return to the question. Is it true? Do we play god when we write novels? Many novelists say that the enjoyment of writing comes about when a character becomes independent, alive, and does their own things. So, perhaps, we play god when we create them, but we give them freedoms, like He does, (when we think of God in Abrahamic terms) allowing our creatures to make mistakes and let them deal with their consequences. But in this case, ultimately, I, the creator, have to take responsibility. I have to admit that I am all of them: I am Samu when he fakes suicide or when he hurts Sofie. I am deeply ashamed of what he does, but I understand him. I understand Mr. Whingley’s gratitude to Great Britain and his commitment to his Rasta culture. I understand Sally’s admiration for Mrs Thatcher but also her frustration with the woman. I understand Uncle George’s opportunism and nostalgic womanising, his attachment to the frisk of gambling and so on. I am, when writing, deeply involved with their thinking and attitudes, their bodily functions, the dirt under their nails and their hungover acidic stomachs and when it’s finished, it’s all over and it is often hard to let go.

I am fascinated by etymology and the differences in languages. For instance, under-stand is a strange word in English. Under means beneath or incompletely, while stand is an upright position, but also motionless. Understand also represents that we stand under a rule and give in to it. In Hungarian, értem - megértem has to do with érték - value. I think, I understand - and value my characters when I write them.

Bed Table Door took ages to write. I found it hard to get into it and hard to get out. There was a skeleton, a film script then called “Orphans” that I developed with a Sundance Lab. In a subliminal way, as it often happens, the workshop was instrumental in creating the male character, Samu’s emotional journey. There, at the Second Central European Sundance workshop, organised by Gyula Gazdag, I had a session with Ron Nyswaner, the Oscar-winning writer of Philadelphia (with Tom Hanks - if you have seen the film, you’ll never forget the dance scene), and we discussed the value of rewriting. He said that Philadelphia had 70 drafts from the first to the shooting script and nothing, not even a character was the same at the end. A very different approach to that of Faulkner’s. This did not happen to me with Bed Table Door, either. I would rather say, the novel grew and grew from frogspawn to tadpole and then into a frog. Finally, someone came along and kissed it (Shane Rhodes, the publisher) and now it is a princess.

If I look back at my life, it has been rich in diverse experiences that I’m grateful for. I met a  female prostitute in a refugee camp and also a male gigolo in Germany and I met lovely gay sex workers in London, so somehow, I was able to put together Samu’s struggle, by osmosis, in the back of my mind.

Well, the script, although it had such a promising start, and it was supported by British Screen as well, later winning the Katapult Prize, has never been made into a film. After some time I took this skeleton with me to the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annaghmakerrig and spent a prolific, focused time starting to put flesh on the bones. I’m still grateful to Newry and Mourne Council and the Arts Council who gave me one of their last bursaries. (Just a note here to add some sadly, now historical fact: that these two-week bursaries were so important in so many artists’ lives - local councils used to give them, valuing/understanding the contribution of artists to society.)

It was a hard start because Bed - set in Budapest was too full of memories and I had to keep reminding myself that this is not my story. Then, Table, set in Manchester had to be researched as I never lived there. I remember a train trip through Yorkshire when a very nice guy, a fellow passenger reminded me of the pop music of the nineteen eighties. He said that his father still played songs by Joy Division and New Order and that song - Love Will Tear Us Apart - and I remembered and agreed that it had to be included.  Many of the settings in Openshaw/Manchester have been demolished since the eighties, so I had to include that gap in space, too. I had to make at least one character squatting before the buildings were demolished. Hungarian refugees who came to Great Britain after the 1956 revolution, were welcomed, and seen as heroes. Uncle George’s pub, The Revolution, which is the first-ever so-named pub in Manchester in the novel, is now a franchise pub chain established in 1996, and it has taken its name from Cuba. Nothing to do with Uncle George’s nostalgia for the Hungarian 1956 Revolution. So, let’s say, his pub was demolished, too.

Although it could have been painted black all over. I find it interesting in differing perceptions, what we find appalling or shocking in other cultures. I tried to show this from many points of view. Cultural shock or resistance to diversity appears in many forms in the novel. I remember my amazement the first time I came to visit the UK, when I saw a pub painted with shining black paint, something like tar, all over.  It looked like a gap in the street, like a gap in a row of teeth, a black hole. I had spent the first 18 years of my life in a socialist tenement, but this was shocking. For me, a purposefully black-painted building was the most absurd/painful thing anyone could have done. On the other hand, given the pollution and smog of industrial Britain, painting it black could have been just a practical decision.

The year 1981 was really full of violence apart from some celebrations in England - with the Royal Wedding. The Laurence Scott factory occupation, the riots and racial tension, while in NI the Hunger Strikes, all became important aspects of the story that influenced Sofie’s view of GB.

In Door - London was easy as I had lived there, but still, Notting Hill is now one of the richest gentrified areas of London, while in 1981 it had a large ethnic minority of Afro-Caribbean origin. This is how Mr Whingley came along. I went back to the places and did a lot of online research to get dates and cultural pointers right, while I took liberty, creating a wholly fictional storyline.

The journey to publication had some excitement such as the long-listing of the Bath Novel Award and being selected for the Write Now programme, but the road was paved with rejection letters until I found Wrecking Ball, a UK indie publisher who has been in the industry for over twenty years. The book brought me the Desmond Elliott Residency awarded by the National Centre for Writing in Norwich, where I spent nine days in August, working on the next one. Looking back, time heals all wounds and I can admit with due stoicism that all of that was necessary. Everything is rooted in nature.

Bed Table Door was launched at the Crescent Arts Centre on 20th October and is available in Waterstones and NoAlibis.