Book Review: Sex and Stravinsky

By Nicky Pellegrino

Sex & Stravinsky by Barbara Trapido
Bloomsbury, $38.99

Novelist Barbara Trapido's  Sex & Stravinsky  is reminiscent of a Shakespearian comedy. Photo / Supplied
Novelist Barbara Trapido's Sex & Stravinsky is reminiscent of a Shakespearian comedy. Photo / Supplied

Writing a book is a hugely physical activity for UK author Barbara Trapido. She paces the floor, shouts at herself in the mirror, intones, recites, cries a bit and then writes her manuscript painstakingly by hand multiple times as she tries to pin down her characters and get the music and flow of the words right. It's never an easy process, but for Trapido, who'll be in New Zealand next month for events in Auckland and Christchurch, her latest novel Sex & Stravinsky (Bloomsbury, $38.99) proved to be perhaps her most difficult book yet.

"I'm very intuitive when I write - I sort of stare into the dark until things become clear," the 69-year-old author tells me over the phone from her home in Oxford, where for many years her husband Stan was a history professor. "I realised I wasn't going to finish Sex & Stravinsky in a hurry because I couldn't work out what the connections were and why I was writing about these people."

To her then-editor's fury, Trapido instead started writing a series of short stories based around her childhood in South Africa.

This was later published as Frankie and Stankie.

"Once I'd finished with that I felt the other book had gestated so I started writing it again," she explains. "But then my husband had a stroke. Writing for me is a playful activity, even when it's sad it's a glorious indulgence. I need to be in my own space, putting on my magic hat and I can't do that when real life is intruding.

"So since my husband couldn't bear anyone but me looking after him, I put the book aside."

After her husband's death it was a long time before Trapido could contemplate writing. "I spent about a year being mostly asleep," she recalls. "Then, when I did fish the book out of a drawer, I was nervous because I was aware I couldn't have come out of the experience unchanged. I did feel a lot more tired and old, but the great thing about writing is that it's like dreaming and when I was doing it I had the kind of energy I don't have in the rest of my life."

For a novel that's emerged from such a difficult time, Sex & Stravinsky is a lot of fun. It's the tangled story of a set of people who are mostly not what they seem and takes place in South Africa and England. Reminiscent in some ways of a Shakespearian comedy, it's laced with Trapido's trademark humour.

"I think all the best comedy grows out of pain," she tells me. Trapido doesn't consciously set out to shadow Shakespeare in her work but often as she's writing she'll realise that's what she's doing. "My head is a ragbag of influences and literary furniture," she says. "But I do like the mindset of Shakespeare comedies. He takes all these cruel and beautiful things and treats them with lightness."

It wasn't until relatively late in life that Trapido began producing novels. She spent around a decade tinkering with her first book, the best-selling Brother Of The More Famous Jack, and submitted it to a publisher when she was 40. "I had a busy family life and it seemed perverted to lock myself away and talk to imaginary people when I had real people around me," she explains.

In a way, the busyness of her life is the reason for the novel's originality as she wrote it very much in a vacuum. "I'd made such heavy weather of having children and working as a school teacher that I hadn't caught up with contemporary fiction and had no idea what was fashionable," she explains. "My books had three-dimensional characters, which wasn't what the literary establishment was doing at all. They were writing novels that did strange things with plot. Now I meet a lot of people a generation younger who say I changed their idea of the way a woman could write."

It's only relatively recently that Trapido has felt able to write about South Africa, the country whose oppressive regime she escaped in 1963. "I came to England and remade myself," she says. "But ever since the regime changed I began to feel much more joined up to it. Stan and I used to go back every year. Since he died two and a half years ago I haven't been but I plan to shift myself soon."

Her son Joe is an expert in Congolese music and daughter Anna lives in Africa and is the author of a book called Hunger For Freedom, which traces Nelson Mandela's life through food.

As for Trapido, she's embarked on another novel.

"I've been so hopelessly unproductive for the past eight years I feel I owe it to my editor," she says.

"It's all a bit of a mess right now, though. When you start a new book you have that awkwardness, like meeting strangers at a party and not being quite sure who they are.

"And I can't seem to get as much done in a day as I did. I've got lousy eyes and they're getting worse all the time. It's quite boring getting old ..."

Barbara Trapido will talk with Carole Beu on September 12 from 6.30pm at the Pioneer Women's Memorial Hall, Freyberg Square, High St, Auckland CBD.

* Tickets $12 from The Women's Bookshop, 105 Ponsonby Rd, Ph (09) 376 4399 or email

- Herald on Sunday

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