Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Truth About Lies

The Truth About Lies


Posted: 26 Oct 2014 05:07 AM PDT


The best moments in reading are when you come across something—a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things—which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours ― Alan Bennett, The History Boys: The Film

I don't read in bed. I don't read on the loo or in the bath. I don't understand people who do. I think the reason is—now I've given the matter some thought, because before I began writing this a few seconds ago I'd hadn't given the matter any thought—that I don't particularly enjoy being in any of these places.

Beds are for sleeping in. If I'm not sleeping then I want to get up and do something. Sleep's a waste of time. I resent how often my body wants to do it and when. For some reason I often get ideas last thing at night when I've no time—because I have to go to bed—to do anything with them. Some get scribbled down in the hope I can make something of them later—the best ideas don't need you to strike when the iron's hot but will wait for you—but most get lost out of pure laziness. There are few things old age has going for it but the one thing I long for is the ability to get by on three or four hours a night especially since by then the amount of years left to me will be considerably reduced by then and every minute will count.

Toilets are a necessary evil. If I ever got the chance to buttonhole God on the subject one of my top peeves will be how unpleasant the elimination of bodily waste can be. Especially solids. Surely he could've dreamed up something more agreeable. But either way it's a job I want to get done quickly and efficiently so I can get back to doing more interesting stuff instead. I do like the idea of multitasking however. And so I tend to think while I'm on the loo. I frequently get good ideas too whilst cloistered away for those five or ten minutes, in fact quite often when I'm struggling with a problem and have to heed the call of Nature the break proves to be exactly what was needed to provide a solution or at least a new direction.

Baths I don't take anymore. It's been showers for years now. We never had a shower growing up and I can't say I was overly impressed with the whole showering experience when I got introduced to it but now the utilitarian in me likes to get the whole bathing experience over with as swiftly and proficiently as possible. (Yes, I know that's just another way of saying 'quickly and efficiently'.) Bathing's another one of those things I resent. Why when I don't' go out of my way to wallow in muck does my body insist on getting filthy? I spend most of my days sitting in a chair reading or writing. Where's all this dirt and grime coming from? If I did still take baths I certainly wouldn't read in them. The idea of holding a paperback with soggy hands just upsets me. I look after my books. I don't turn down the corners of pages or break the spines or take them into rooms full of steam and soapy water.

I tend to read in two places in this flat: my leather armchair in my office or the Ikea Poäng armchair in the living room. I prefer the former if I'm reading a paperback because I have a lamp beside the chair. If it's an e-book—I mostly read on a tablet—then I'm happy in either chair but if my wife's up I'll sit beside her and read. I'm not an especially fast reader. Nor can I fall into a book for hours and hours. I'm always very conscious that I am reading a book. If I'm reading a paperback I always count how many pages are in the chapter I've started so I know how long I have to go before I reach a natural stopping point. (I don't like that you can't do that easily with e-books.) Forty pages used to be my absolute max. Twenty was typical. Recently I've been getting better and I've even managed a hundred pages in one sitting but that's rare. I read seventy-five yesterday and the same today but in two sittings; I was getting tired and had to leave the last fifteen pages until I'd had a nap.

3 writers

I don't read for pleasure. I don't hate reading but if I want to relax I'll watch TV. I read to educate myself. I've always wanted to be the kind of person who people regarded as 'well read'. I don't think I am. Well, that's not true. I am well read in that the majority of books I've read have been good books—Auster, Beckett, Camus… that's my kind of ABC—but I'm not widely read. The list of authors I've never read upsets me every time I think about it although one has to draw the line somewhere and mine comes in round about 1900. I've read virtually nothing prior to the twentieth century apart from the Bible and feel no great pressure to do so. I've never picked up a Dickens or an Austen and can live with myself. The TV and film adaptations have filled any gap there.

I do wish I retained more of what I read. I have a bad memory—I mention it often (it's the bane of my life)—which is why I always write reviews of the books I read—if not on my blog then at least on Goodreads—as a way of reinforcing what I've read. What is the point in reading a book if you can't remember a damn thing about it? I've books on my shelves that I read in my twenties and literally all I can tell you about them is that I once upon a time I turned all their pages, looked at all the words contained therein and retained sod all. Waste … of … time. When I was twenty I had time to waste. If I last as long as my parents that's probably all the time I have left. That's a sobering fact. Of course medical science is improving all the time and it really would be nice not to snuff it when I hit seventy-five but let's say I do. That means I've got some 7300 days left. Or 1040 weeks. So if I only read a book a week I could reasonably read another thousand books before I die. I should make a list.

When writers are asked to give advice to newbies one of the things they usually tell them to do is read: read, read, read and then read some more. It's not bad advice but I think it can be overemphasised. Read, yes, do, but do be selective in what you read. You can learn quite a bit from reading rubbish—what not to do, what doesn't work—but once the lesson's learned move on. Don't keep reading tripe. Same with good books. You don't need to read every book by every author but do try and read something by every author, every major author and certainly every author who chimes with you. This is why I feel no desperate need to read Dickens or Austen. They may be great authors but they don't speak to me. Stumbling across an author who does though is a wonderful thing. It happens rarely. (It's happens to me rarely and I can't imagine it happening to anyone else more often.) You can even benefit from reading authors whose views you're diametrically opposed to. (See Why It's Important to Keep Reading Books By People Even If They're Monsters.)

On 14 October 2013 Neil Gaiman gave the second annual Reading Agency lecture at the Barbican Centre, London. You can read the whole thing here and there's a lot good in it but I'd like to quote just one section:

[A]s Douglas Adams once pointed out to me, over twenty years before the kindle turned up, a physical book is like a shark. Sharks are old: there were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs. And the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else is. Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath-resistant, solar operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books, and there will always be a place for them.

Not so sure about the 'bath-resistant' but other than that I agree with him.

I like books. I like being in a library in the same way I like being in a supermarket. I love looking at all the packaging. I don't always like what's inside the boxes or the packets or between the covers of a certain book but I do like to be surrounded by them. The idea of throwing a book away really bothers me and probably the only ones I have consigned to the recycling have been technical books that are now outdated. And even ridding myself of them bothered me a wee bit. I try not to romanticise my feelings for books—they're only books after all—but I find it hard. I have never known a world without books and I struggle to conceive of one without them even if they do all end up being turned into endless streams of ones and zeroes on some übercomputer somewhere in the distant future. I can imagine a world without sharks before I could imagine one without books.

Of course the Internet is full of lists telling you why you reading is important, Top Threes, Top Fives, Sevens, Eights, Tens but I don't need a list to tell me why I should eat; I just eat because I enjoy it. Of course there're reasons why we need to eat but once you start breaking things down like this, for me anyway (who doesn't have a scientific bone in my body), it takes all the fun out of the thing. I feel better when I eat. I feel better when I read. It's not complicated. I know that not everything that makes you feel good is necessarily good for you and, yes, reading has its minuses—tired eyes, sore neck, missing your bus stop—but that's where we need to be grownup about reading.

My mother had a saying (it's not hers but she made it hers): "You are what you eat" and as I may have mentioned here before in later life she lived off microwave chips so I'm not sure what the moral here really is but if you are what you eat then I suppose it's just as true to say: You are what you read. My mother had another saying (this one was hers): "I don't buy rubbish." And you can see where I'm going here: I don't read rubbish. What's the point?

I have a daughter. I mention her periodically and if she bothered to read my blogs more often she'd probably be pleased that I mention her; people do like to be thought of. Before she was born she had a library of over one hundred books. I Tar Babyremember scouring the bookshops in Edinburgh looking for a complete set of Enid Blyton's retelling of the Brer Rabbit stories—the first books I remember having a real effect on me (especially 'The Tar Baby' and 'Mister Lion's Soup')—because I had a single ambition for my daughter: I wanted her to be a reader. That was it. Some parents try to live vicariously through their kids—that was never my intention—but if I have one regret (actually I've a list) it's that I was never a voracious reader. I was never discouraged from reading but neither was I encouraged. I did not want that for my daughter. I wasn't desperate for her to become a writer although it pleased me that when started writing poems and I have one of hers framed by my bed (one of the few she ever let me read) but it was important that she became a reader. Which she did. Everything else was gravy.

Why read? Why indeed? There are so many quotes I could insert here, pages and pages of them. I chose Alan Bennett to lead off this article because it was the one I related to most strongly but it's only one of many and there's some truth in all of them. Do we really need one more? Let's have a go: Reading is the doorpost we measure ourselves by. Even on tiptoe few of us reach the lintel.

I'll leave you with that lecture I mentioned earlier:

A History of Books

Posted: 19 Oct 2014 04:47 AM PDT


If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction. But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact. – Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

When you read you forget. You're forgetting right now. Reading is an act of forgetting but there are levels. Whilst reading you temporarily forget the outside world and become absorbed in the text before your eyes but as your eyes scan the page in front of you, you also almost instantaneously begin to forget what you've read. You carry the gist of what you're read from page to page but if asked to remember even a single sentence from the preceding page most would be hard pressed to do so. We let go so easily.

Memory is an issue with me and so any texts that deal with memory issues are always of more interest to me than others and so from the very beginning of this book I found myself empathising with the narrator—not to be confused with the author although they could well be twins—and his inability to remember very much about any of the books he's read throughout his life. When I first joined Goodreads I decided to go through the books in my cupboard, the old ones I've been carting around for decades, and enter them in the system to start me off and I was appalled to note how little I could dredge up from the depths of my mind. I had, for example, read four books by Nabokov when in my early twenties and could remember nothing bar the titles.

In 'The Boy's Name Was David' the third of the four pieces of fiction in this book—Murnane doesn't talk about his writing in terms of novels or stories—we're introduced to a man who was for a time an English teacher and he makes an important point about reading, at least according to Joyce:

james joyceAs a teacher, he had been fanatical in urging his students to think of their fiction, of all fiction, as consisting of sentences. A sentence was, of course, a number of words or even a number of phrases or clauses, but he preached to his students that the sentence was the unit that yielded the most amount of meaning in proportion to its extent. If a student in class claimed to admire a piece of fiction or even a short passage of fiction, he would ask that student to find the sentence that most caused the admiration to arise. Anyone claiming to be puzzled or annoyed by a passage of fiction was urged by him to find the sentence that had first brought on the puzzlement or the annoyance. Much of his own commentary during classes consisted of his pointing out sentences that he admired or sentences that he found faulty. At least once each year, he told each class an anecdote that he had remembered from a memoir of James Joyce. Someone had praised to Joyce a recent novel. Joyce had asked why the novel was so impressive. The answer came back that the style was splendid, the subject powerful…Joyce would not listen to such talk. If a book of prose fiction was impressive, the actual prose should have impressed itself on the reader's mind so that he could afterwards quote sentence after sentence. [bold mine]

I managed to remember the first three sentences of this article in their entirety. Ask me in an hour's time and it'll be a very different story.

What happens when we read? No doubt whole books have been written on the subject although this article is interesting when it comes to the subject of fiction. It's not something we think about. We pick up a book, locate where we left off and begin. But begin doing what? When we put down a book we say we've finished it but what does that mean? Samuel Johnson noted: "A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it." He meant something different though; he believed that a reader adds to the written word and oftentimes when a book fails the lack is with the reader and not its author: I can tell you here and now that I was too young to appreciate the Nabokovs I read as a young man.

Murnane opens the first work of fiction in this book with a famous quote:

After a certain age our memories are so intertwined with one another that what we are thinking of, the book we are reading, scarcely matters any more. We have put something of ourselves everywhere, everything is fertile, everything is dangerous, and we can make discoveries no less precious than in Pascal's Pensées in an advertisement for soap. MARCEL PROUST, Remembrance of Things Past

I'm not sure what age Proust was thinking about but I believe—and I suspect Murnane would agree—that this process begins at a very early age. Images are a big thing with Murnane and he gets a great deal of satisfaction from discovering "at least once during the writing of [a piece of] fiction a connection between two or more images that had been for long in his mind but had never seemed in any way connected." In the second piece of fiction in this book, 'As It Were a Letter', he talks about a time when he was eleven:

If [he] had been asked at the time what were the chief dangers of the modern world, he would have described in detail two images that were often in his mind. The first image was of a map he had seen a year or so previously in a Melbourne newspaper as an illustration to a feature article about the damage that would be caused if an Unfriendly Power were to drop an atomic bomb on the central business district of Melbourne. Certain black-and-white markings in the diagram made it clear that all persons and buildings in the city and the nearest suburbs would be turned to ash or rubble. Certain other markings made it clear that most persons in the outer suburbs and the nearer country districts would later die or suffer serious illness. And other markings again made it clear that even persons in country districts rather distant from Melbourne might become ill or die if the wind happened to blow in their direction. Only the persons in remote country districts would be safe.

The second of the two images mentioned above was an image that often occurred in the mind of the founder of Grasslands although it was not a copy of any image he had seen in the place he called the real world. This image was of one or another suburb of Melbourne on a dark evening. At the centre of the dark suburb was a row of bright lights from the shop windows and illuminated signs of the main shopping street of the suburb. Among the brightest of these lights were those of the one or more picture theatres in the main street. Details of the image became magnified so that the viewer of the image saw first the brightly lit picture theatre with a crowd milling in the foyer before the beginning of one or another film and next the posters on the wall of the foyer advertising the film about to be shown and after that the woman who was the female star of the film and finally the neckline of the low-cut dress worn by that woman. This image was sometimes able to be multiplied many times in the mind of the viewer, who would then see images of darkened suburb after darkened suburb and in those suburbs picture theatre after picture theatre with poster after poster of woman after woman with dress after dress resting low down on breasts after breasts.

This is very typical of Murnane. When he reads he is completely absorbed with the images that appear in his mind, some generated by the text obviously enough but others that are responses to what he's been reading. Fiction is very important to him. It's the environment that's most suitable for the kind and level of thinking he gets the most out of. He notes that when a young man he actually "preferred to the visible world a space enclosed by words denoting a world more real by far."

In 'The Boy's Name Was David' he talks about a story written by one of his students. As an old man he's been looking back on the various stories he's read and graded over the years—over three thousand—and realises that he can remember very little of any of them. So he devises a kind of game, a race if you will—the winner of which will receive the imaginary "Gold Cup of Remembered Fiction"—to see which one he can recall most clearly:

The fifth contender was a sentence: the opening sentence of a piece of fiction. A few vague images hung about the man's mind whenever he heard the sentence in his mind, but they meant little to him. The man was not even sure whether the images had arisen when he had first read the fiction that followed on from the opening sentence or whether he had imagined them, so to speak, at a much later date. The man seemed to have forgotten almost all of the fiction except for the opening sentence: The boy's name was David.


The boy's name was David. The man, whatever his name was, had known, as soon as he had read that sentence, that the boy's name had not been David. At the same time, the man had not been fool enough to suppose that the name of the boy had been the same as the name of the author of the fiction, whatever his name had been. The man had understood that the man who had written the sentence understood that to write such a sentence was to lay claim to a level of truth that no historian and no biographer could ever lay claim to. There was never a boy named David, the writer of the fiction might as well have written, but if you, the Reader, and I, the Writer, can agree that there might have been such a boy so named, then I undertake to tell you what you could never otherwise have learned about any boy of any name. [bold mine]

Many times throughout these texts Murnane pauses to remind the reader that what they're reading is a work of fiction. For example:

Since the previous sentence is part of a piece of fiction, the reader will hardly need to be reminded that the man mentioned in that sentence and in earlier sentences is a character in a work of fiction and that the newspaper clipping and the note mentioned in some of those sentences are likewise items in a piece of fiction.

There is at least one good reason for this. More than any other writer Murnane draws on his own life experiences as a basis for his fiction and it's tempting to imagine what you're reading is autobiographical in nature—it is undoubtedly semi-autobiographical—but the simple fact is that even if it were wholly autobiographical and as accurate an accounting as he was capable of producing it would still be fiction: we fictionalise it as we read it. I have never been to Melbourne. I've seen a few photos and some films (I watched a documentary about Murnane, Words and Silk – The Real and Imaginary Worlds of Gerald Murnane, which featured the city, for example) but the bottom line is that Melbourne might as well be Narnia as far as barley patchI'm concerned. Murnane exists in my imagination in exactly the same way and I exist in his imagination; I have a copy of Barley Patch signed to me and he got the city I live in wrong. As Murnane puts it, in A Million Windows, "Today, I understand that so-called autobiography is only one of the least worthy varieties of fiction extant."

For me the most captivating piece of writing in this volume was the opening one, 'A History of Books', which consists of twenty-nine sections that trace his reading throughout the years and how little he finds he can remember of any of those books. It also looks at why he was reading. He'd decided he wanted to be a writer—he'd even taken two years off work letting his wife support him so that he could have the space to tackle this ambitious project—but what he discovers as he reads (and as he attempts to write) is what kind of writer he is. One like no other. Simply telling stories was not for him. He felt "as though writing fiction was too easy. It seemed to [him] the easiest of tasks to report image-deeds done by image-persons in image-scenery or even to report the image-thoughts of the image-persons." Hence his unique approach to writing.

If this is the first book by him it will take you a while to get into step with him. He writes with great precision but also manages to be incredibly vague at times to. A simple example:

His surname ended with the fifteenth letter of the English alphabet.

I bet you just counted the letter on your fingers. It's what I did. I didn't even have to think about it. But you can't say he's not been precise. And he often directs the reader's attention to things he's written previously (or is about to relate) with comments like "the young woman mentioned in the first sentence of the previous paragraph", "[t]he man aged sixty and more years had never read any sort of report of the fictional events reported in the previous five paragraphs of this work of fiction" and "[e]ach of the four previous paragraphs reports details of a central image surrounded by a cluster of lesser images that had arisen from several sentences of one or another piece of fiction."

At the end of the book the publishers provide a list of the authors of the books referred to in 'A History of Books' are believed to include. I would discourage you from checking it until you've finished the piece. That said they don't mention the actual books he's talking about. Some were obvious—he provides the occasional quote which you can easily google—and he even names one (although he does so in the original German) but a number are very obscure. It seems as a young man he and his friends were attracted to esoterica:

The man and his friends liked to seek out and to read little-known books of fiction, especially books translated from foreign languages, and then to announce to one another that he or she had discovered a neglected masterpiece, one of the two or three greatest books of fiction that he or she had read.

Here's an example:

An image of a man and an image of a young woman appeared at the base of a tall image-cliff. These images appeared in the mind of a certain young man while he was sitting beside a campfire at the base of a tall cliff and trying to explain to a certain young woman what he remembered having read in certain passages of a certain book that he considered, so he told the young woman, a neglected masterpiece of English literature. Since the young man spoke as though the image-persons were actual persons, they will be thus described in the following paragraphs.

The image-cliff was not a bare rocky cliff such as might have overlooked a bay or a seacoast but a steep embankment overgrown with grass and bushes and forming one side of something that was reported in the so-called neglected masterpiece as being a dingle, which word the young man had never looked for in any dictionary, preferring not to have to call into question the images that had first appeared in his mind while he was reading a work of fiction. At the base of the cliff was mostly level grass shaded, at intervals, by clumps of bushes. Near one such clump a small tent was pitched. Perhaps ten paces away, near another clump, a second tent was pitched. About halfway between the two tents, a kettle of water hung above a campfire. One of the tents belonged to the man mentioned and the other tent to the young woman mentioned in the first sentence of the previous paragraph. Both the man and the young woman were noticeably tall, and the young woman had red hair.

The man and the young woman had lived in their respective tents since their first meeting, which had taken place several weeks before. At that meeting, the young woman had struck the man but had later made peace with him. During the weeks when the young woman and the man had lived in their tents, they had often taken their meals together or had drunk tea together at the campfire between the tents. At such times, they had debated many matters, and the young woman had sometimes threatened to strike the man. Sometimes, beside the campfire, the man had persuaded the young woman to learn certain words and phrases in the Armenian language, which the man had learned from books for no other reason than that he felt driven to learn foreign languages. At one time, beside the campfire, the man had persuaded the young woman to conjugate in several of its tenses and moods the Armenian verb siriel, I love. In the course of this lesson, the man and the young woman were obliged to speak, in the Armenian language, such sentences as 'I have loved', 'Love me!' and 'Thou wilt love'. At a later time, beside the campfire, the man proposed to the young woman that he and she should marry at some time in the future and should then go to live in America. At a later time still, the young woman left the dingle without the man's knowing and did not return. A few days later again, the man received from the young woman a long letter telling him, among other things, that she was setting out alone for America and that she had declined his proposal of marriage because she believed he was at the root mad.

isobelThe book in question is Isopel Berners by George Borrow, specifically the events of chapter fourteen. Not a book I suspect many will have heard of. Not an author I suspect many will have heard of. But none of that's important. Were I to list all the books I've ever read I'm sure there will be a few oddities in there which are unique to me and form part of the image bank that I draw on every time I read a book. I, for example, to the best of my knowledge have only read one book by an Icelander—Stone Tree by Gyrðir Elíasson. Murnane has also read at least one, an "English translation of a long work of fiction that had been first published in the Icelandic language in Reykjavik in the year before" he was born—so that would be in 1938. My best guess would be Halldór Laxness's World Light. Either way Murnane will have his fictionalised version of Iceland in his head and I will have mine.

We've talked a lot about fiction—the word appears in the book over two hundred and fifty times—but what about non-fiction, facts? He has some interesting things to say on this subject. Two unrelated excerpts:

(Why did I write just then the expression a book of non-fiction? Why is the expression a factual book so seldom used? Is this our way of acknowledging that most seeming-facts are, in fact, fiction? And, if books of fiction are not called non-factual books, is this because we understand that most matters reported in books of fiction have a factual existence?)


The man who was aged nearly seventy years was making notes for a work of fiction in the belief that the power of fiction was sometimes able to resist, if not to overcome, the power of fact. The man understood that a fact could never be other than a fact, even though it might be reported in a work of fiction, but he believed that any fictional event or any fictional character might be said to have acquired a factual existence as soon as the event or the character had been reported in a published text.

You might be forgiven for thinking you were reading a book on philosophy rather than a work of fiction but this is very much philosophy-with-a-small-p. This is a guy trying to communicate how he sees the world. It sounds complex but then riding a bike sounds difficult when you try and put it into words and really for all this guy's a writer his primary interest is in the visual, what he ­sees when he reads.

Although not arranged chronologically what we get in this book is a very specific kind of biography, from age eleven to nearly seventy; he's seventy-five at the moment. Other of his works of fiction deal with different aspects of his life. As an addition to his existing canon I'd say it was invaluable but then I'm a fan as you can see from my articles on Tamarisk Row, Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs, Inland and The Plains. I've also read Barley Patch but never quite got round to writing about it.

The final piece of fiction in this volume is 'Last Letter to a Niece'. I'll mention it just briefly. This is a very different piece of writing. You'd almost think it was a story. And there's a reason for this. It's actually an adaptation "from one of the seven pages about the life and the writing of Kelemen Mikes in the Oxford History of Hungarian Literature." Oddly, though, it fits with the tone of the rest of the book because the uncle in question has never seen his niece and so holds an imaginary image of her in his head (and from all accounts in his heart):

But I have not explained myself. I am interested in the appearance and deportment of young women in this, the everyday visible world, for the good reason that the female personages in books, like all other such personages together with the places they inhabit, are quite invisible.

You can hardly believe me. In your mind at this very moment are characters, costumes, interiors of houses, landscapes and skies, all of them faithful images of their counterparts in descriptive passages in books you have read and remembered. Allow me to set you right, dear niece, and to make a true reader of you.

A true reader. I'd like to think this is how Murnane sees himself and that his efforts in writing this book (as well as his others books) is to convert us into true readers too. In that respect this is the most evangelical of texts and yet somehow manages not to be at all preachy.

If you have read Murnane before this book will not disappoint. If you haven't this isn't actually a bad place to start. There's stuff you won't see as important—the marbles, the horse racing and his interest in Hungarian which he taught himself to speak late in life (see here)—but it's not a great loss; the book stands alone just fine.


murnaneGerald Murnane was born in Coburg, a northern suburb of Melbourne, in 1939. He spent some of his childhood in country Victoria before returning to Melbourne in 1949 where he lived since. He has left Victoria only a handful of times and has never been on an aeroplane.

In 1957 Murnane began training for the Catholic priesthood but soon abandoned this in favour of becoming a primary-school teacher. He also taught at the Apprentice Jockeys' School run by the Victoria Racing Club. In 1969 he graduated in arts from Melbourne University. He worked in education for a number of years and later became a teacher of creative writing. In 1966 Murnane married Catherine Lancaster. They had three sons.

His first novel, Tamarisk Row, was published in 1974, and was followed by nine other works of fiction. He's also published a collection of essays, Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs.

In 1999 Gerald Murnane won the Patrick White Award. In 2009 he won the Melbourne Prize for Literature. He has since won the Adelaide Festival Literature Award for Innovation and has received an Emeritus Fellowship from the Literature Board of the Australia Council.

The Year of Magical Thinking

Posted: 12 Oct 2014 05:33 AM PDT


I wanted to get the tears out of the way so I could act sensibly. – Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

I began reading this book the day after my goldfish died. We'd had him for eight or nine years and would've happily hung onto him for another eight or nine but he became ill, was refusing food and in the end the kindest thing was to euthanise. At one point I walked back into the living room and my wife asked me, "How's Fishy doing?" to which I replied, "He's dying." At which point I cried. I begin with this not because I think that the loss of a goldfish equates with the loss of a partner but just to show what a softie I am. And yet I never cried reading this book. I didn't tear up, not once. Towards the end of the book once she starts to pull things together as a form of protracted summary over the last three or four chapters I started to feel a bit for her but her accounts of her husband's death and the events leading up to his being declared dead (two different things) as well as her accounts of her adopted daughter Quintana's two extended stays in hospital—twice the girl is at death's door—were delivered with such dispassion and objectivity that despite the amount of detail, the clinical detail if you will, there were times when I felt like I was reading a textbook rather than a memoir:

This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself. I have been a writer my entire life. As a writer, even as a child, long before what I wrote began to be published, I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish. The way I write is who I am, or have become, yet this is a case in which I wish I had instead of words and their rhythms a cutting room, equipped with an Avid, a digital editing system on which I could touch a key and collapse the sequence of time, show you simultaneously all the frames of memory that come to me now, let you pick the takes, the marginally different expressions, the variant readings of the same lines. This is a case in which I need more than words to find the meaning. This is a case in which I need whatever it is I think or believe to be penetrable, if only for myself

One of the reviewers who only gave the book one star—and there were a few (3% on Goodreads which amounts to over 1400 people)—said, "I found only brief spots of actual grief for Didion's husband and daughter, but they weren't enough to overpower my loathing for the author and her self-importance." I can't say I loathed the author despite her privileged lifestyle which as far as I can see she worked to attain and there wasn't enough name-dropping to annoy me in fact I found it oddly sweet that Katharine Ross taught Didion's daughter to swim. Listening to Liza Minnelli talk about her childhood makes me feel the same. Rich people are allowed to lose loved ones too and grieve in their own way.

I found this comment in an interview in the Huffington Post noteworthy:

Joan said it came to her that everybody she'd known who'd lost a husband, wife, or child looked the same:

"Exposed. Like they ought to be wearing dark glasses, not because they've been crying but because they look too open to the world." It was this rawness that shocked her, she said. "I had spent so much of my life guarding against being raw. I mean, part of growing up for me was getting a finish, an impenetrable polish. And suddenly to be thrown back to this fourteen-year-old helplessness..."

What interests me here is the use of the word "raw" because despite her best efforts I'm sure that rawness didn't come across. She said it was like "sitting down at the typewriter and bleeding. Some days I'd sit with tears running down my face." Why did none of that bleed through?


Of course other than fish and a few cats I have lost a couple of humans, both my parents who'd been a part of my life for as long as Didion's husband had been a part of hers, and I have tried to explore my own grief process—unsuccessfully I should add—but much of the material here didn't reach me. I suspect this is because the degree to which my parents mattered to me had diminished to such a degree that I barely felt the loss. I was sad but not bereft. I grieved but didn't mourn. As Didion puts it:

Until now I had been able only to grieve, not mourn. Grief was passive. Grief happened. Mourning, the act of dealing with grief, required attention.

Perhaps if I reread this book once I've lost my wife—assuming she passes away before me although she insists that's not going to be the case—I might feel differently. I found the book interesting which is a word I do tend to overuse but in this instance it's both the right word and the wrong word: it's the right word because it accurately describes what I got from the book (I was interested in the outcome) but it's also the wrong word because others have clearly been deeply affected by what they've read. So the difference is between an intellectual appreciation and an emotional connection.

As a memoir all Didion has to measure up to is herself and her own recollections of events. What was interesting was the way things came into focus over time. The nearest I can relate to this is my experience following the breakup of my first marriage. I found myself telling people the story of the marriage trying to work out at which point things went wrong and there were several contenders. Didion does much the same. No one is to blame—she never seeks to blame a person, not even God, although I was never quite clear where she stood there—but she appears to find some comfort from looking back on her husband's heart problems seeing them in a new light. It's interesting—that word again—how her husband seemed to find comfort knowing (or at least believing) that he would die from a heart attack.

Much of what Didion goes through is what most people—but most certainly all writers—do: trying to find the right words to make sense out of what's just happened. Non-writers have to rely on books like this. Didion, too, gains comfort from the writings of others and not only from fiction but technical manuals, too. I'm not like that but my wife is so, although I don't personally understand the need, knowing someone who is interested in the mechanics of the human body helps me to appreciate Didion's need. Death is a process which has a beginning and an end; tracing that process—journeying with the person who's just died—is probably helpful to some. I, personally, felt no need with either of my parents. My father died under very similar conditions to Didion's husband. He sat in an armchair. One minute he was alive, the next he wasn't.


Books like this are about the search—pointless though it may be and often is—for meaning. Didion writes:

[We cannot] know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.

In his review in The New York Times Robert Pinksy writes:

By attending ferociously to the course of grief and fear, Didion arrives at the difference between "the insistence on meaning" and the reconstruction of it.

He's not quoting Didion here when he talks of "the insistence of meaning" (it's from a poem by Frank Bidart—who actually says "Insanity is the insistence on meaning") but this is exactly what she does. Meaning is a solution to a problem. Julie Andrews wondered how to solve a problem like Maria; Joan Didion wonders how to solve a problem like her husband. Over the months she gathers her facts and assembles her formula only to realise that there are so many things she will never know:

One day when I was talking on the telephone in his office I mindlessly turned the pages of the dictionary that he had always left open on the table by the desk. When I realized what I had done I was stricken: what word had he last looked up, what had he been thinking? By turning the pages had I lost the message? Or had the message been lost before I touched the dictionary? Had I refused to hear the message?

Much of what she does and thinks is irrational and she's well aware that's what's she's being—she refuses to throw out his shoes in case he needs them when he comes back—and one might wonder how she can be objective and subjective at the same time but from my own experience of depression I can assure you that you can be; it's a coping mechanism.

There were things I was surprised she skipped over, like the x number of stages of grief—but I was fine with that. After all this is a personal exploration of loss and I think that's ultimately why I found the book interesting as opposed to moving because I found myself standing with her looking back at what happened as opposed to experiencing things with her; I experienced her reflections on her experiences and not the experiences themselves, a reflection (in all meanings of the word) and not the reality. I think I would've preferred a semi-autobiographical novel like P.F. Thomése's Shadow Child. Novels are often more intimate than any confessional memoir no matter how honest the author tries to be. Autobiography tells you only what the writer recalls and how they want you to think they behaved at the time. Some manage to be more truthful than others. But even the most honest memoir is still a carefully constructed artefact, reality filtered through self-conscious caution. I am not, of course, making any accusations here. Didion is well aware she's attempting the impossible: "trying … to reconstruct the collision, the collapse of the dead star."

Blue-Nights-by-Joan-DidionOn March 29, 2007, Didion's adaptation of her book for Broadway, directed by David Hare, opened with Vanessa Redgrave as the sole cast member. The play expands upon the memoir by dealing with Quintana's death which happened a few months after she completed The Year of Magical Thinking and is dealt with in Blue Nights, a memoir about aging. Having just read this article what I now realise is how little we really learn about Quintana in this book. I suddenly see the girl in a completely different light. The memoir may be primarily about Dunne's death but a large portion isn't and it would've been helpful to learn a bit more about her clearly troubled daughter. Dunne incorporated some of his daughter's fears into his novel Dutch Shea, Jr. and Didion quotes from the book but not with enough weight. It slips by that Cat is a thinly-veiled Quintana:

The Broken Man was in that drawer. The Broken Man was what Cat called fear and death and the unknown. I had a bad dream about the Broken Man, she would say. Don't let the Broken Man catch me. If the Broken Man comes, I'll hang onto the fence and won't let him take me…. He wondered if the Broken Man had time to frighten Cat before she died.

The article says, "The secret subject of Joan Didion's work has always been her troubled daughter." I did not get that.

You can read the opening two chapters of The Year of Magical Thinking here.


joandidion90sJoan Didion, born in California in 1934 and a graduate from Berkeley in 1956. Her most highly esteemed work is her narrative nonfiction, which she began writing in the 1960's in the form of essays that have over the years appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books, among other publications. Of Didion, Joyce Carol Oates once wrote,

[Joan Didion] is one of the very few writers of our time who approaches her terrible subject with absolute seriousness, with fear and humility and awe. Her powerful irony is often sorrowful rather than clever [...] She has been an articulate witness to the most stubborn and intractable truths of our time, a memorable voice, partly eulogistic, partly despairing; always in control.

She married John Gregory Dunne in 1964, a fellow writer, and they collaborated on a number of projects, mainly screenplays, probably the most notable being A Star is Born. Unable to have children, in 1966 they adopted a baby at birth and named her Quintana Roo, after the Mexican state.

Didion has published numerous collections of her essays beginning with 1968's classic Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and culminating in Blue Nights which came out in 2012 which I will probably read since I get the feeling it might fill in some of gaps in The Year of Magical Thinking. She is also the author of several novels.

The H-Bomb and the Jesus Rock

Posted: 05 Oct 2014 03:08 AM PDT


It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the western hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response... – John F. Kennedy: Address on the Cuban Crisis October 22, 1962

When I first chanced upon this novel I imagined it was going to be one of those books like When I was Five I Killed Myself or Naïve. Super, a little gem that those in the know were raving about but had somehow managed to escape wider exposure. And I was right but here's the thing: no one seems to have been raving about this book and for the life of me I don't understand why. Three reviews on Amazon (two five-stars and a four) and a third five-star review on Goodreads and that looked like it. No newspapers. No blogs. No nothin'. I did, finally, discover an interview with the author here and a short review on but that really was it. And I think that's a crying shame because this is a lovely book. It reminded me of Peanuts and who doesn't like Peanuts?

The events in the book take place on Saturday, October 27, 1962, the last (and darkest) day of the Cuban missile crisis. Tense negotiations had been taking place for some time but since several Soviet vessels attempted to run the blockade tensions had increased to the point that orders had been sent out to US Navy ships to fire warning shots and then open fire. On this Saturday a U-2 plane was shot down by a Soviet missile crew, an action that could easily have resulted in immediate retaliation from the Kennedy crisis cabinet. Americans were sitting on their porches with radios pressed to their ears or could be found queuing up outside confessionals wanting to make their peace before the inevitable end. Thoughts about the atomic bomb or fallout rose from 27 percent in the spring of 1962 to 65 percent during the crisis. Schools were having twice daily duck and cover drills as recorded by one of the children in the novel:

        Sister Veronica's had us doing duck-and-cover drills twice a day.
        She'll be going on about something, the natural resources of Brazil or something, then all of a sudden, "Down, children, down," and we have to get out of our seats and down on our knees facing away from the windows, foreheads on the floor, hands behind our necks. She never tells us if it's real or not, if we're all going to die now or not. This kid in front of me, Jerome Winslow, starts whimpering every single time. I always whisper to God a quick "Sorry, sorry," in case this is really it.
        Once while I was down there I snuck a peek at Sister to see what she was doing, and there she was, down on the floor like the rest of us. That scared me a little, I have to admit, seeing this nun on the floor.

LucyIt's a grim time. Unless you're a kid who takes these things with a pinch of salt which entrepreneurial Toby does. He's out in front of his house, business as usual, not unlike Lucy offering psychiatric help for 5¢. Toby Tyler's line of business is not advice on how to cope with the current crisis; it's baseball cards:

        It was warm out this morning so I was sitting on the top step of the front porch with my boxes of cards, open for business, trade or buy, a tall stack of toast and jam on a plate beside me.
        Mom made the jam herself, with actual strawberries.
        She still wasn't back from Mass. She probably lit some candles afterwards in front of Mary and said a rosary. Plus it takes her a while to walk from there. It's only a couple of blocks but it takes her quite a while.
        Poor thing.

Toby, as you've probably gathered, has been brought up a Catholic. The other two players in this little drama are Ralph and Lou (short for Louisa). Roger's ten and his sister is eight and their relationship is not dissimilar to that of Charlie and Sally Brown: she whines; he's lousy at baseball. They're more devout than Toby despite that they—or perhaps because—they come from a poorer part of town. Toby and his mum aren't exactly rolling in it but following the death of his dad they are comfortably off:

        We're not rich, me and Mom, but my father was a big enough bigshot with Mutual of Omaha so we're pretty well set because of him dying. But what I would like, I would like to be rich, and not just rich but filthy rich. Or anyway rich enough to have a staff. That's my dream, to have servants—a chef, a maid, and a butler.
        Especially a butler:
        —You rang, sir?
        —Change the channel, will you?
        —As you wish.
        —And bring me some more of those Peeps, just the heads.
        —Very good, sir.

I'm not sure you'd call Lucy snobby but she is bossy and crabby and Toby's those too. He's also one thing Lucy isn't—apart from not being a girl—he's overweight:

        Here's something funny, though. I've got all these baseball cards, seven shoeboxes full, and I don't even like baseball. I don't like any sports. That's one of the reasons I'm so fat. I'm only thirteen, eighth grade, and I'm already twice the size of anyone around, except my mom.
        She's truly huge.

He even suggests setting up a tent in their backyard, "twenty-five cents to step inside and guess the Fat Lady's weight". Of course he'd share the profits 50:50. She is not amused.

Okay, so I've pretty much covered Toby. Ralph and Lou Cavaletto are completely different. Their dad's a janitor and when they get up there're only two slices of bread in the house and they have to fend for themselves—no tall stack of toast and jam for them—but they're content with their lot and look as if they genuinely care for each other. This morning Lou wants to go to the vacant lot to look for empties, as Ralph recalls:

        I promised her the other day we'd go look for empties on Saturday and today was Saturday and she didn't forget. She never does.
         "After I get back," I told her. "I'm gonna go to the park for a while—don't start whining—just for a while. Then I'll come back and we'll go."
         "Soon as I get back."
         "But when, Ralph?"
         "Quit whining."
         "Just tell me."
         "After Garfield Goose. By the end of it."
        I promised. Then I told her about that last piece of bread I left in the toaster. I told her she'd better go eat it before I did.

So Ralph heads off to the park:

Charlie Brown        It was nice out for being practically Halloween, plenty warm enough for baseball, so I brought my glove and wore my Sox cap, and sure enough a bunch of guys were already in a game. They let me in, out in right field.
        I like baseball. It's one of my favourite things. I wouldn't mind being a pro when I'm old enough, you know? Playing baseball for money? That would be perfect. Right now I'm ten so I should be in Little League this year, except we didn't have the money, and anyway I didn't really want to join. They got uniforms and coaches and umpires and dugouts and chalk lines and brand new white balls and people in the stands—I'd be way too nervous. I'd be so afraid of making a bad play it wouldn't be any fun.
        But I like it at the park.

Needless to say the game does not go the way he imagines it might in his head but he dutifully returns home—he is a good big brother—collects his sister and they head off to the vacant lot dragging their wagon behind them. The return on an empty is 2¢ by the way. On their way they pass Toby's house and, since it's hot and he doesn't like sweating if he can avoid it, he has a proposition for them:

        He offered us a nickel if we wagoned him there and back. He said he wanted to get some baseball cards at Morgan's—that's the drug store just past the vacant lot—and if we took him in the wagon there and back he'd give us five cents.
         "Each?" I said.
        He asked me if I was out of my mind.         I started leaving.
         "All right, all right," he said.
        I stopped. "All right what?"
         "A dime."

A dime was worth five bottles immediately so it made good business sense to agree; they may not have Toby's business acumen but they know a good deal when they see one. Well it would've been a good dead if a) he hadn't been quite so fat and b) they hadn't eaten his toast while he was in the house putting on his shoes which Toby then charged them a dime for. Anyway, long story short, huffing and puffing they heave their way to the shop, Toby gets his cards and on the way back they pause at the vacant lot where he permits Ralph and Lou a few minutes to forage for bottles but that's not what Lou turns up:

        I stubbed my foot. Fatso hollered and I looked up and stubbed my foot on something and almost fell.
        It was a rock. I was going to kick it for tripping me. I was mad. We had to wagon him all the way back now and I was going to kick the rock—but it was looking at me. It had like an eye and it was looking at me out of it. Plus I think it told me, "Don't, Lou." Or maybe not, maybe it didn't speak, but it was looking at me, I know that.
        So I picked it up.
        Now it was looking at me out of two eyes.
        And that wasn't all...that wasn't all...

It's a rock caked in dirt but the image on the thing looks like Jesus. Ralph realises this could be a Holy Object; they'd been shown a film about Our Lady of Fátima the previous Thursday where an angel had apparently appeared to three shepherd children. Toby sees dollar signs. And that's as much as I'm going to tell you.

The article had a few good points to make. It said the book explored such themes as:

  • How children deal with fear, especially during time of war
  • The notion that all wars eventually turn into "holy wars"
  • How children create their own narratives reflecting the adult world – merging fantasy with real-life

These are good points to keep in mind when reading this. Because we have a book narrated by children it's sometimes easy to shrug off their insights or to imagine this is an adult putting words into his creations' mouths but I completely accepted the perspectives offered by the three narrators—the book is presented in short chapters alternating in perspective from one kid to the next—and believed them unlike most of the characters in Peanuts who are frankly a bit too wise for their ages. quotes the author as saying:

Through the story, I attempt to show the way in which a profound national crisis gets interpreted, played out, and 'resolved' by children. It's important that we understand the way fear operates in children, the way they absorb, and respond to a moment of national emergency as well as what narratives they use to 'resolve' the issue, the adult ideas they draw on, and how easily they are manipulated into a particular interpretation of the crisis.

And in his interview he adds:

The H-Bomb and the Jesus Rock came out of a whole big bag of things from my grade school years—the fear of sudden nuclear annihilation, the equation of the Red Scare with the Red Devil, coldblooded nuns, a fat kid in the neighbourhood with a vast collection of baseball cards and a perfect capitalist mentality, this letter the pope was supposed to open which the saintly little shepherd children of Fatima got from Mary, which would predict the fate of the world, and this complete belief we had in signs, in holy objects, for instance a rock that looked like Jesus, and the power of such a God-placed thing, and of course looking for empty pop bottles to get the two-cent refund—all of this was mixed together, so writing the book became a matter of separating all this stuff into elements that could carry a story along. I had a lot of trouble coming up with a title. I usually have one pretty early on, but I didn't know what to call this one. I finally just jammed the two major elements of the story together.

duck and coverManderino is clearly drawing on personal experiences. I was three when all this was happening but I can still relate strongly to it. I didn't grow up with Duck and Cover; in my day it was Protect and Survive. We watched films like Threads and The Day After which, if Wikipedia is to be believed, "is currently the highest-rated television film in history" and we told jokes about what we'd do when the four-minute warning came. Of course the cold war's over but just look at the recent surge in dystopian and post-holocaust fiction. The fear never went away, not really. Plus I had a religious upbringing, which I've never recovered from, and so I strongly related to how people reacted in the book; I lived in fear of—or at least in expectation of—Armageddon every day of my childhood; I remember when there was a big explosion at ICI—I was sitting in English at the time—and for a second or two I genuinely wondered if this was it, the end of the world.

Normally I would've posted this review on Goodreads and got on with the next book—I'm never short of books to review here—but I really was disappointed by the lack of publicity for this book, not that I imagine this article will open the floodgates but, seriously, you can pick up the book for pennies now on Amazon. I highly recommend it. And when did you last hear me say that about any book?


John ManderinoJohn Manderino lives in Maine with his wife Marie, where he teaches college writing and provides coaching and editing services to other writers. One of his students describes him as, "This guy is one ****ing cool dude. He's very dry and entertaining. Great teacher." He's published three novels, a collection of short stories and a memoir with Academy Chicago. John has also written plays that have been performed at theatre festivals and other venues. A stage version of his memoir Crying at Movies was recently produced.

The optics of poetry

Posted: 28 Sep 2014 04:07 AM PDT


Poetry is the art of saying two (or more) things at once and making them one. – Richard Wakefield, 'Poets display writing translucent and opaque', Seattle Times, 10 April 2005

In the opening chapter to his book Seven Types of Ambiguity William Empson states:

An ambiguity, in ordinary speech, means something very pronounced, and as a rule witty or deceitful. I propose to use the word in an extended sense, and shall think relevant to my subject any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language.

Simply put then: Ambiguity is the quality of having more than one meaning. That seems clear enough, pun intended. What I think would surprise most of us is just how ambiguous most of what we say actually is, even when we think we're being crystal clear in our meaning. We assume because our intent is to 'tell the truth' (an expression which is often confused with 'report the facts') we're being transparent and open when what we're forgetting is that everything we say is open to interpretation and much is lost in the translation.

In his book Empson then goes on to discuss the (seemingly) simple sentence, 'The brown cat sat on the red mat,' and what becomes apparent very quickly is how unclear that sentence actually is. He continues:

The fundamental situation, whether it deserves to be called ambiguous or not, is that a word or a grammatical structure is effective in several ways at once.

Any word. Any grammatical structure.

Lawyers go to great pains to leave nothing open to interpretation. There's a formality to their style of writing which is peppered with specialised words and phrases, archaic vocabulary (herein, hereto, hereby, heretofore, herewith etc.), Latin expressions (habeas corpus, prima facie, inter alia etc.) and quotidian words which have different meanings in law like party which indicates a principal in a lawsuit as opposed to a convivial get-together, an oblique way to refer to drug taking or a euphemism for sexual congress. It can get confusing especially when the party of the first part parties at a party with certain parts of the party of the second part. But if you've ever spent even a few minutes reading a legal document you'll realize just how unclear and open to interpretation these documents often are. There's a lot of money to be made translating legalese into plain English.

There's no money to be made in poetry whether in translation or not and yet many poets go out their way—or so it seems—to be as opaque as possible in their writing:

Opaque poems are written with such a sense of mystery, free association of thought, or private myth-making and symbolism that sometimes even the most astute readers have difficulty "taking in" the poem rationally. The beauty of these poems, or poetic lines, lies in the realm of the imaginative, the intuitive, the metaphysical. Stream of consciousness poems are in this category. Sometimes poems or poetic lines are best appreciated for the stream of ideas and the sound combinations rather than for the reader to come away with a logical, coherent, rational meaning. Carried to extremes, the reader may leave the poem feeling isolated from the poem's "meaning" and intent. – The Poem as Craft: Poetic Elements

Communication's hard enough when people are trying to be understood. Why go out of our way to make our readers' lives difficult?

BernsteinIn the fourth of his excellent, if a little long-winded, Norton lectures Leonard Bernstein gives another broader definition of 'ambiguity' and I think it's important to distinguish between the two kinds of ambiguity he talks about:

"Ambiguity" is in itself an ambiguous word—that is it has more than one meaning. And I think before we go one step further into our enquiry we would do well to have a solid dictionary definition or two. Or two: That's the problem. There are two distinct definitions arising from the dual meaning of the prefix ambi- which can signify "bothness" (that is being on two sides at once) and also signify "aroundness" (or being on all sides at once). The first connotation, bothness, yields such words as "ambidextrous" and "ambivalent", which imply duality. Whereas the second connotation, aroundness, conditions such words as "ambience", "ambit", and so on, which relate to the general surround thus implying vagueness. Webster gives these two definitions of "ambiguous": (1) "doubtful or uncertain" and (2) "capable of being understood in two or more possible senses". – Leonard Bernstein, 'The Delights & Dangers of Ambiguity', The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard, pp.193,194

To my understanding all words naturally contain multiple meanings; they do not naturally have to be vague. On the other hand the seven types of ambiguity that Epson goes on to discuss in his book are:

  1. The first type of ambiguity is the metaphor, that is, when two things are said to be alike which have different properties. This concept is similar to that of metaphysical conceit.
  2. Two or more meanings are resolved into one. Empson characterizes this as using two different metaphors at once.
  3. Two ideas that are connected through context can be given in one word simultaneously.
  4. Two or more meanings that do not agree but combine to make clear a complicated state of mind in the author.
  5. When the author discovers his idea in the act of writing. Empson describes a simile that lies halfway between two statements made by the author.
  6. When a statement says nothing and the readers are forced to invent a statement of their own, most likely in conflict with that of the author.
  7. Two words that within context are opposites that expose a fundamental division in the author's mind.

I'm not going to discuss them all here but broadly speaking we have number 6 and all the rest. I refuse to believe that any poet sits down and deliberately writes nothing. I do believe that many poets expect too much from their readers. They don't exactly expect them to read their minds but they do imagine that everyone thinks like they think and will make the same connections as they do and that is simply not the case. So the reader is forced to make something else of what's before him.

Most people would regard me as a plain speaker. Especially in my poetry. I say what I have to say and get off the page. And yet a part of me is slightly offended by that presumption if I'm honest. I think my poems have a broader scope than is first apparent. Yes, most are immediately accessible and I think that's a good thing but if you spend time with them (which so few people are willing to do—and not just with my poetry, any poetry) there's more there. Life being the way it is I think we need to cater to people's needs and present a surface meaning that people can get in a oner because at least they're getting something from the poem. If I stood my ground and made them work they'd probably give up after a few lines, take nothing away from the poem and put even less effort into getting the next poem they come across. Their loss but my loss too. I have stuff to say. If I go to the bother or publishing a poem I want it to be read. I think what I have to say can make a difference to people's lives and I'm willing to present what I have to say in such a way that what I have to say is at least partially communicated to my readers, the important bits at least.

Is there something to be gained from misdirecting our readers? You would think not.

Work in Progress

I have something important to say.
Please be patient.

I have the words right here, all the
words one could ever need to say
all the things that have to be said.
It won't be much of a problem.

It's just there are so many words.
It will take time to sort through them.
You can't just pick any old words.
when revealing important things.

Have you ever sat down and thought
about how many words there are?
And why it's always the small ones
cupthat appear to make the most sense?

A cup of coffee while you're waiting?
Or herbal tea?

3 April 2007

A poem's supposed to be about something, yes? At the very least it's supposed to say something. And yet what I'm saying here is: I don't have the words to say what I need to say. Think about all the important things you've said in your life. I bet most of them were said in words of one or two syllables, words a five-year-old could grasp—'I love you', 'I quit', 'It's a boy/girl', 'Don't stop', 'Stop!', 'No, your bum doesn't look big in that'—and yet you take those same simple words, jiggle them about a bit and you end up with a poem called 'Work in Progress' that's maybe not quite as obvious as it first looks. I'm not saying it's the most complex poem ever written but it does require something from the reader to bring it to life. Who's the narrator? Who's he talking to? What's this important thing he can't find the words to say? A lot of readers assume when you use the first person pronoun the poem's autobiographical. Problem here is that the tense is the present so that means the 'you' is you. And how the hell could I offer you a coffee or a tea when we're separated in time and space by several years and a couple of hundred or even thousand miles? It doesn't make sense. What's the poem about?

Well, I intended it to be about how hard it is to write a poem. When you read my poem you imagine—i.e. you pretend—I'm talking to you, you and you alone. That I have said or will say those exact words to some bloke in Cheyenne or a girl in Adelaide and a dozen other people scattered across the globe is neither here nor there. At this precise moment I'm talking to you, in the present even though I 'said' the words first way back in 2007. It's still now. It will always be now. It has to be now for the poem to work. You need to imagine me standing—am I standing? maybe I'm kneeling—before you with something important to say and if it's important then maybe it's personal. Maybe I'm trying to tell you I love you; that's pretty personal. Maybe I'm building up the courage to say how big your bum looks in what you've got on. Whatever I'm trying to get across, it's obvious that it matters. It matters that I get it right. Any ol' words won't do. This is how I approach every poem I write. I spent time on these words. They may not be the fanciest of words. But they're the right ones. Of course when I compose a poem my readers aren't around like this apart from my wife and I never tell her when I'm writing a poem; she simply gets the thing handed to her to rubber stamp when I'm done. But what if you were here? Imagine the pressure.

Did you get all that from the poem? Or any of that? If you didn't does that mean you didn't get it? Does it matter if you didn't get it? Am I a bad poet? Maybe you're a bad reader. Maybe we're just a bad fit. Tell you what, I won't write you any more poems and you don't read any more of my poems and we'll both be happy. Or am overreacting?

You and I are not connected. Time, space, culture, life experience, age, gender possibly all create a gulf. My wife gets me. As much as any one person can get another person. She gets irritated by me and frustrated because I don't always get her, so maybe I just think she gets me because I get me and I can't see what's so hard to get. Pretty straightforward guy, me. Although not the most communicative. I live in a wee world in my head and don't let anyone in. I write poems as records. I actually don't have a pressing need to communicate to anyone other than my future self. My poems are a diary, a codified diary, admittedly, but a diary nevertheless. The poems aren't locks. The poems are keys. Take this poem:


we are not ready

go skinny-dipping

one another's souls.

29 August 1989

That poem unlocks a whole series of memories. It's also the key to understanding this later poem:


(for Jeanette)

Being with you
is like

swimming in the sun
on a

warm Summer's day.

23 June 1996

Of course both poems work (IMHO) fairly well on their own. They're not the greatest poems I've ever written but they mean a lot to me. I knew Jeanette when I wrote 'Reflections' but that poem's not about her. It could be because at that time I wasn't ready for our relationship to be more than it was; she was a casual friend and that was it. 'Reflections' is actually about someone else. Doesn't matter who. On one level they're the most opaque of poems, what my wife would call 'decoder ring poems'. The need for some level of encoding is explained in this old poem:


Poems are near
naked thoughts: for

Adamwe will not take
off our clothes since

we are ashamed
of our bodies.

7 January 1979

We talk about naked truths but I don't think we—or at least I (I can only really speak for myself)—am capable of complete honesty. I don't have the words. As I wrote more recently:


Words drag
me down.
They are
out to
get me.

I look
them up
and there
are more
of them.

I look
those up
and there
are more

Each word
is an
to fall

where there
are no

11 August 2012

I don't think any of the five poems above is a 'difficult' poem. I never set out to obfuscate. For starters I tend to shy away from words like 'obfuscate' although I do have a poem (which I will spare you) from my schooldays entitled 'The Obfuscating Task of Writing a Poem'. I suppose what I aim for is translucency in poetry. Transparency is impossible. Let me make that last statement clearer: I don't believe writing can be both poetic and transparent at the same time. It's not in its nature. The following comes from a blog over at The Dish:

The preface to a recent translation of Greek Poet Kiki Dimoula's work addresses the issue of opacity in poetry. Dimoula seems to think that the question isn't whether poetry should be opaque, but, rather, whether it can be poetry at all without being opaque. She offers a parable to illustrate:

Once, on the road to Alexandroupolis [in Thrace], long before I reached the city, I saw storks' nests, high up, at the tops of a line of telegraph poles. Protruding from the poles, the bases of the nests were fluffy and shiny, like the fancy frills that decorate cradles, ready to welcome newborns. In the middle of each nest stood a stork, erect, immobile, on one leg, as if in this ascetic position, in this ciphered balance, it was protecting secrecy's sacred hatchling. Already protected from above by the celestial cradle net. Poetry is like a nest to hide in. It is built on a pointed height so as to be inaccessible to the rapacious curiosity of anyone who wants to see too clearly what's being hatched inside it. The most efficient way to safeguard concealment is by subtraction. Art is ever-vigilant, elliptical, balancing on one leg. When we write, we subtract." (xv; emphasis added)

"When we write we subtract." I think artists sometimes forget that simple fact because it's true not merely for writers but composers and choreographers and visual artists. A poem is a starting point, not an end in itself. I've used the following quote commonly attributed to Paul Valéry before and it's so well-known now that I suppose it's veering on the clichéd but I still like it: "A poem is never finished; it is only abandoned." (Actually this is a paraphrase of Valéry by Auden. Valéry actually said, "A poem is never finished; it's always an accident that puts a stop to it—i.e. gives it to the public." And more fully, "A work is never completed except by some accident such as weariness, satisfaction, the need to deliver, or death: for, in relation to who or what is making it, it can only be one stage in a series of inner transformations.")

I don't think I abandon poems, deliberately or accidentally. I don't like the verb; it has unpleasant connotations. If our poems are indeed our children we don't—at least we shouldn't—abandon them to the world but which one of us, no matter how good a parent we've been, sends out a child who's prepared to face every eventuality? We do our best. There's a lot of me in my daughter (poor thing) but somehow she makes it work and has blossomed (terrible word) despite that. She's an interesting person.

In his book Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry David Orr tries to make a point by referencing one of Karen Volkman's sonnets, which opens:

Blank bride of the hour, occluded thought
wed to waning like a sifting scent
of future flowers, retrograde intent

The sonnet, he points out, is "metrically regular, is composed of fourteen lines, uses real words, and has a traditional rhyme scheme—but it doesn't make sense and is grammatically incoherent." We latch onto what we can. But here's a curious perspective. Rather than trying to understand the poem Orr advises posing a simpler question to which everyone will have his or her own answer: "Is it this interesting?" If you can say yes, then, as Orr notes, "that is enough." It's a point of view but not one I myself can live with. Interesting is not enough in itself. When I find someone interesting I want to get to know them. I want to spend time with them. An interesting poem is a… mind tease.

At its best, as Wallace Stevens says, poetry should "resist the intelligence / Almost successfully," meaning it shouldn't quite make sense, thereby expanding the reader's—and poet's—notion of sense a bit. I can live with that. But there's resistance and there's resistance. When you're trying to give your wife or girlfriend a cuddle and she resists it might just be because she want you to persist. All good things are worth waiting for and worth fighting for after all. Just because a poem resists a little doesn't mean it doesn't want you to get to know it. It'll let you in if you don't give up. No one wants an 'easy' poem that gives away everything on first read. My poems respect themselves too much for that. I brought them up proper. They don't wear see-through tops but they don't mind showing a bit of leg.

The poem 'Reflections' is not about the relationship between the poet and his reader although it is about the relationship between a poet and a reader. But what if it was about me and you? It's very important that the poem begins with a no. If there's a no then something preceded it, an advance, a proposition, a question to which the answer is no. What might that question have been? What about: Can I understand you? The poem says no. Are you going to take no for an answer? Sometimes no means no and sometimes no means maybe. Try again. That's a bit of my soul contained in those six lines. Taking off one's clothes and being seen naked isn't so hard even if your body's not in the best of shape. But letting someone see you naked on the inside is another thing entirely. I'm not going to let strangers in without putting up some kind of resistance. If you're worthy all will be revealed. And, of course, the revelation goes two ways because at that moment you'll see yourself a little differently than you did before and there's no going back:

WarningDo Not Read this Poem

You mustn't read this.
Turn the page, please.

You don't want to see
                  the home truth here.

Because when you peer
                  in this darkness

                  you'll discover a
                  side to yourself

                  you didn't want to.
Just like right now.

I do hope you think
                  it was worth it.

13 July 1997

People continually squabble about what a poem is nowadays. I'm more interested in what a poem does frankly. Only one person has seen 'Do Not Read this Poem' and not read it. My onetime boss's daughter—who was about eight at the time I think—was flicking through by big red book of poems, came to this one and said something like, "Okay then," and turned the page without reading. I was very impressed. The poem's not about me. The poem's all about you. It's my equivalent of "Do not eat from the tree in the middle of the garden." Sometimes no mean no. It's a deliberately dissatisfying poem. That's its point.

People use all kinds of metaphors to describe poetry. If such a thing could exist as transparent poetry then it would be like a sheet of glass; opaque poetry is more like a brick wall we bang our heads against. Continuing the optical metaphor, translucent poetry would fall somewhere in between, allowing some light through but not enough for the reader to clearly get it. Ideally, though, poetry should be opaque enough to reflect some aspect of yourself like a mirror. Let me leave you with this to reflect on:

Mirror, Mirror

Before we start, gentle reader
tell me what you're looking for;
it helps if I know beforehand.

(Because poems are whores;
they become what you want,
but there's always a price.)

mirrorOr we could just talk if you like.
What do you want to hear?
Surely not the truth?

Oh, I see: you like mirrors.
Well that's quite all right.
I have just the thing here.

All it takes is a little imagination.

19 August 1996

Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?

Posted: 21 Sep 2014 03:30 AM PDT

eggers novel
Diseases desperate grown,
By desperate alliances are relieved,
Or not at all.
Hamlet, IIII.ii.)

Books written solely in dialogue divide people so I wasn't surprised to see a lot of one- and two-star reviews for this. I, personally, loved it to pieces. I enjoyed Cormac McCarthy's The Sunset Limited and Nicholson Baker's Checkpoint; Aaron Petrovich's The Session was good, if a little short, but Padgett Powell's Me & You was simply wonderful. There are others I've still to get round to like Philip Roth's Deception which I'll probably have read by the time I get round to posting this.

The all-dialogue technique was pioneered first by Henry Green and later (and more famously) by William Gaddis, who, in 1975, published J R, a book where it is sometimes difficult to determine which character is speaking other than conversational context. I've written two novellas now. Exit Interview was the first and still has the feel of a play very much like The Sunset Limited but In the Beginning was the Word like Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? Is pure dialogue. It's so refreshing actually to be able to forget about those boring descriptive passages and what's going on inside people's heads. I'm surprised I don't do more of it. I think Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? is the best dialogue novel I've read yet.

In an interview over at McSweeney's the author was asked the obvious question and his answer is illuminating:

When I started the book, I hadn't planned on it being only dialogue. I knew it would be primarily a series of interviews, or interrogations, but I figured there would be some interstitial text of some kind. But then as I went along, I found ways to give direction and background, and even indications of the time of day and weather, without ever leaving the dialogue itself. So it became a kind of challenge and operating constraint that shaped the way I wrote the book. Constraints are often really helpful in keeping a piece of writing taut.

Within the first couple of pages I felt clued-in on where we were and what was happening. It really takes very little. A man called Thomas has somehow kidnapped an astronaut, driven with him to an abandoned military base and handcuffed him to what he decides to call "a holdback for a cannon". His motive? To ask him a few questions after which he agrees to free him, unharmed. It sounds like a bizarre proposition but it's not really. John Fowles conceived something similar back in 1963 with The Collector.

The base in question is Fort Ord in California:

Fort Ord is a former United States Army post on Monterey Bay of the Pacific Ocean coast in California, which closed in 1994. Most of the fort's land now makes up the Fort Ord National Monument, managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management as part of the National Landscape Conservation System.


While much of the old military buildings and infrastructure remain abandoned, many structures have been torn down for anticipated development. – Wikipedia

Fort Ord

If only I could talk to him/her. Then they would understand. Or then I'd know. How many people in this world would you like to sit down and have a conversation with? But not just a conversation, an honest exchange. Ten? Twenty? Fifty? But most of the people I'd like to have a chat with wouldn't give me the time of day. Their security wouldn't let me within an inch of them even though all I want to do is talk. Kidnapping them is always an option—people get abducted every day of the week—but when I start to consider the practicalities of successfully planning and executing a kidnapping I realise that there aren't that many people I really want to talk to that much. That said I do have a lot of questions I'd like answers to. Most people in life do. What if those questions started to burn a hole in me? What then? Where would I start?

Thomas starts with a spaceman. He's called Kev Paciorek. They were at college at the same time. Thomas was three years younger and Kev doesn't remember him, but apparently they had at least one conversation where Kev revealed he wanted to fly the space shuttle. Thomas never forgot this; he looked up to Kev and followed his career with interest. And Kev does indeed succeed in becoming an astronaut. He does it by hard work and deserves to be admired. And then a year after he gets accepted by NASA the Shuttle is decommissioned. Thomas has done his research:

—You know too much about me.

—Of course I know about you! We all did. You became an astronaut! You actually did it. You didn't know how much people were paying attention, did you, Kev? That little college we went to, with what, five thousand people, most of them idiots except you and me? And you end up going to MIT, get your master's in aerospace engineering, and you're in the Navy, too? I mean, you were my fucking hero, man. Everything you said you were going to do, you did. It was incredible. You were the one fulfilled promise I've ever known in this life. You know how rarely a promise is kept? A kept promise is like a white whale, man! But when you became an astronaut you kept a promise, a big fucking promise, and I felt like from there any promise could be kept. That all promises could be kept—should be kept.

—I'm glad you feel that way.

—But then they pulled the Shuttle from you. And I thought, Ah, there it is again. The bait and switch. The inevitable collapse of anything seeming solid. The breaking of every last goddamned promise on Earth. But for a while there you were a god. You promised you'd become an astronaut and you became one.

Now Kev's waiting on his turn on the International Space Station. And he's accepted his fate. But Thomas feels cheated on his behalf. Why can the Russians afford their space shuttle when the Americans can't? Kev tells Thomas:

—They've prioritized differently.

—They've prioritized correctly.

—What do you want me to say?

—I want you to be pissed.

—I can't do anything about it. And I'm not about to trash NASA for you, chained up like this.

—I don't expect you to trash NASA. But look at us, on this vast land worth a billion dollars. You can't see it, but the views here are incredible. This is thirty thousand acres on the Pacific coast. You sell some of this land and we could pay for a lunar colony.

—You couldn't buy an outhouse on the moon.

—But you could get a start.

The problem is Kev really doesn't have all the answers Thomas is looking for. He answers his questions, grudgingly at first, and then with increasing candour but it becomes obvious that he's only a small cog in the machine. Thomas realises he needs to talk to a bigger cog and excuses himself.

—I have an idea. Hold on a sec. Actually, you'll have to hold on a while. Maybe seven hours or so. I think I can do this. And here's some food. It's all I brought. And some milk. You like milk?

—Where are you going?

—I know you like milk. You drank it in class. You remember? Jesus, you were so pure, like some fucking unicorn.

—Where are you going?

—I have an idea. You gave me an idea.

The action then shifts from Building 52 where he's holding the astronaut to Building 53 where Thomas has chained up Congressman Dickinson. And he has a few questions for him.

Of course having glanced at the chapter headings at the start of the book I then realised then where this was heading. There were chapters for Buildings 52, 53, 54, 55, 57, 60 and 48. No one can seem to answer the question Thomas really needs to be answered and part of the problem is he's asking the wrong people the wrong questions but it's a process and only once he's gone though it does he—and we—get to see what's really going on with this guy.

As a flight of fancy goes this is a wonderful premise. I'm not sure than any of us would get the answers we'd expect or want but Thomas does learn some truths. Like what really happened to his friend Don Banh. As the book progresses and Don's name keeps cropping up we start to realise what the trigger was that set this whole thing in motion. But the really big questions, the meaning of life questions, no, he doesn't find the answers he's looking for. And I would've been as impressed as hell if Eggers had managed to pull that one off.

Ultimately the issue here is broken promises. Thomas feels that the promises made to him—or at least the promises he believes have been made to him—as a son but especially as an American have been broken. The astronaut was supposed to be his hero but Kev let him down and ultimately everyone's managed to disappoint him: his parents, his teachers, women, the whole goddam system from the president down to the cops on the beat. Why aren't the leaders leading the people? Why are thirty thousand acres of prime real-estate lying unused? The politician tries to put things in perspective for Thomas:

—Thomas, nothing you say is unprecedented. There are others like you. Millions of men like you. Some women, too. And I think this is a result of you being prepared for a life that does not exist. You were built for a different world. Like a predator without prey.

—So why not find a place for us?

—What's that?

—Find a place for us.

—Who should?

—You, the government. You of all people should have known that we needed a plan. You should have sent us all somewhere and given us a task.

—But not to war.

—No, I guess not.

—So what then?

—Maybe build a canal.

—You want to build a canal?

—I don't know.

—No, I don't get the impression you do.

—You've got to put this energy to use, though. It's pent up in me and it's pent up in millions like me.

Thomas isn't a bad guy. He's just a guy who can't live with not understanding why life is as unfair as it tends to be to most people. And he takes matters into his own hands, stupidly, but not more so than the man who walks into the bank that's repossessed his house and holds them up for the exact amount to settle his debts. chiefHe's a smart and volatile man, an angry young man, but then young men have been raging against the machine—what Chief Bromden would later call "the Combine"—since the fifties and probably a long time before that thinking about student riots as early as 1918 in Argentina.

I completely bought into this and loved its execution. The characters were believable, especially Thomas. If I was to nit-pick—one can always nit-pick—I'd like to know just how Thomas manages to subdue so many people with such ease since most of them are picked up off the cuff without more than a few hours planning and also I was a little disappointed when the cop (who he chooses at random because he "looked more like a dentist") just happens to be one who was involved in the incident concerning Don Banh. Since Marview is a fictional town, of course, there's no way to tell how large a police force is has so maybe it's not that much of a stretch. These really are minor gripes. Some have criticised what they see as sermonising. It's a fair point. Just watch two or three episodes of Harry's Law with its current events driven storylines and you'll realise just how much is wrong with the USA—and not only the States but to be fair this book is a tad Americocentric—and how little good sermons actually do. Actions speak louder than words. Thomas has tried talking—"I've written letters to the department and never got an answer. I asked to talk to anyone and no one could bother."—so now the only thing left is to take matters into his own hands. Desperate times call for desperate measures.


22IYER-articleInlineDave Eggers was born in Boston, Massachusetts and grew up in Lake Forest, Illinois, an affluent town near Chicago. When Eggers was 21, both of his parents died of cancer within a year of one another, leaving Eggers to care for his 8-year-old brother, Toph. Eggers put his journalism studies at the University of Illinois on hold and moved to Berkeley, California where he raised Toph, supporting them by working odd jobs. In the early 1990s, he worked with several friends to found Might, a literary magazine based out of San Francisco. The publication gained notoriety when it ran a hoax article describing the death of Adam Rich, a former child actor. Despite the acclaim, the magazine attracted only a limited readership and folded in 1997. In 1998, Eggers founded publishing house McSweeney's, taking on editorial duties of literary journal Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern.

In 2000, Eggers published A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a memoir about raising Toph and working for Might. The book garnered a slew of critical plaudits, became a bestseller and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and launched Eggers into literary stardom. For the next five years, Eggers split his time between fiction and charitable projects.

Much of Eggers's later writing has taken a socially conscious bent, building upon his journalism background. In 2006, he published What is the What, the 'fictional autobiography' of Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng. All proceeds from the book were donated to charity, and in 2007, Eggers did the same with the proceeds from Zeitoun, his nonfictional account of a Syrian-American imprisoned in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In addition to his ongoing literary and charitable work, Eggers co-wrote the screenplays for two films: Spike Jonze's adaptation of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, and, with his wife Vendela Vida, Sam Mendes's Away We Go.

You & Me

Posted: 14 Sep 2014 04:06 AM PDT

You & Me

HAMM: We're not beginning to... to... mean something?

CLOV: Mean something! You and I, mean something! (Brief laugh.) Ah that's a good one!

-- Endgame, Samuel Beckett

It is tempting—and numerous esteemed and not so estimable reviewers have been unable to resist—so let's get it out of the road: If you're aware of the existence of Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot then the first thing that will jump to your mind when you begin reading You & Me [You&I here in the UK] is: This feels an awful lot like Waiting for Godot. Which it does. Now whether it was intended to is another matter but there are plenty of examples in literature (and film especially) of couples who natter away like this. All we know for certain is this:

Somewhere between Bakersfield, California, and Jacksonville, Florida—we think spiritually nearer the former and geographically nearer the latter—two weirdly agreeable dudes are on a porch in a not upscale neighbourhood, apparently within walking distance of a liquor store, talking a lot. It's all they have. Things disturb them. Some things do not.

You&IWe never learn their names—one talks, the other responds but we don't know who's who nor does it matter—or their ages but if we accept that at least some of what comes out of their mouths is true then they're probably in their seventies and have been friends for most, but not all, of their lives. This could been set in the deep South—imagine two rednecks in rocking chairs on a porch overlooking a swamp—or these two could be a couple of Jews perched on a bench in New York's Central Park kvetching about life; they could just as easily be a pair of yokels leaning over a fence staring out over some field in East Anglia chewing on a piece of straw or even two teuchters sheltering under a tree ruminating on how many words the Scots have for rain. There's universality to these two. We recognise them immediately. What sets these two apart from most old men is their marked lack of grumpiness. There's a surprising—indeed refreshing—cheerfulness to these two; they actually moan very little although it would be too much to ask them not to moan at all and they do seem genuinely content with their lot—not that it is a lot—in life.

I first saw Godot when I was nineteen. I got up at the crack of dawn to watch an Open University programme knowing little about the play other than it was one of those things I would likely benefit from viewing. The next morning when it was repeated I insisted my wife and my best friend's girlfriend who was staying with us at the time get up at the same ungodly hour to watch it again with me and I was frankly puzzled why they weren't as excited as I was to have discovered this little gem. Had I read You & Me when I was nineteen I'd've been buying up copies to post to friends and family for birthdays and Christmases and been genuinely mystified when effusive letters of thanks and phone calls didn't follow within a few days of receipt. I'm fifty-five now and know better. But I'm nineteen on the inside and it's been a while since anything's delighted me quite as much as this. Withnail and I did it. Lars Iyer's Spurious did it. Cormac McCarthy's The Sunset Limited did it. Sartre's No Exit did it. The first time I saw Abbott and Costello do their 'Who's on First' routine—that did it. I love banter. Beckett does it well but he's far from being the only one.

These two aren't even waiting for anything. There is no Godot equivalent. I thought "the codgers" who get mentioned in the opening few exchanges—you really can't call them chapters—might be some people who were talked about but who never turned up to defend themselves but, no, that was never the case. No one turns up. No one's expected. But it's not awful. Of course ultimately they're going to die but then we're all going to shuffle off this mortal coil sometime it's just that some of us have started to realise we've significantly less time than most and towards the end of the book I did wonder if Powell might not actually bump them off. This is, of course, assuming that they're not already dead and this is some "antechamber to heaven" they're in that Powell mentions in his quote from Barthelme at the start of the book and in the body of the text. It doesn't matter. Wherever they are they're enjoying themselves.

They have more props than Didi and Gogo ever had. And they do talk as if they've done things in between their confabs but it's academic. Mostly they don't talk much sense anyway. But it's not all nonsense either, far from it:

    There is a fine line between humour and stupidity.
      The line is finer all the time.

They've lived a long time and have opinions—often not especially flattering opinions—on most things from film stars to politicians. They stand outside all of that so feel free to have their say. In an interview with Lee Griffith Powell talks a little about the conception of these two:

I had no visualisation. As characters, these two boys are not really distinguished from one another. They don't have names for a reason. They're just convenient position takers, taking somewhat oppositional positions in order to keep talking—more or less in the way that friends do. I tend to call this book a monologue as opposed to a dialogue because their positions are so suspiciously and conveniently similar. It is one mind having a little argument. [1]

And that's effusive by Powell's standards from what I can see of him and interviewers but then Beckett was not one for explaining his works either if one does insist (it's fun to, let's put it that way) we keep trying to compare the two. I've heard similar said about Didi and Gogo, that they're "two sides of the same existential coin"[2] and the play should not be taken literally. So why should You & Me? At the end of the day what we have is nothing more complicated than an author talking to himself and writing that down for his own—and hopefully others'—entertainment. And I was fine with that. After much digging I did find this response from Powell:

The issue of Godot has certainly come up in America. They want to put that on the jacket but is it fair to say that this is reminiscent to a specific Beckett play when at best it might be called Becketty? Aren't there other plays of Beckett in which two people talk for a long time? It's a label and handy enough, but probably injurious in the long run.[3]

When I first watched Waiting for Godot at whatever unearthly hour it was all those years ago I didn't get it. I didn't get a fraction of it but I knew I was in the presence of greatness. Thirty-six years later having watched the play performed several times and studied it at length I can now see why it's such a great play. Assuming I survive another thirty six years—55 + 36 = 91, so unlikely—I doubt I'll be saying the same about You & Me because although this is a fun book—and it is great fun—that doesn't mean it's great-with-a-capital-g unless it's hiding its greatness under a bushel. If I might illustrate:

      Is it better to have continuity of no content or discontinuous content?
      What is "content"?
      I use it as an irritatingly vague substitute for seriousness of purpose or meaningfulness in living, or something similarly perhaps as irritating as "content"—
      I get the drift. I would say it is better to have content without the continuity if the alternative is smooth unbroken vapidness such as the sort we practice in these dialogues every day.
      I'll mark you down in the intellectual column. I am not surprised. I'm pencilling you in right beside Bertrand Russell.
      I'll take it. One might be pencilled in beside, say, Jerry Lewis.
      Listen, I'd rather not talk today. I want to go watch old tennis players be displaced by young tennis players and the crowd weep as they retire and then start cheering for the new cocky-bastard upstarts who have sent them to pasture. This I want to do today, and nothing else. I want a cool soda water in my hand and a hat on my head and to not be overweight myself watching the elderly depart. I can from this position think gently of my own death.
      You almost got some content going on.
      I got it going on.
      You'll look like a tennis groupie but you'll have secret ponderment.
      No one will know.
      You'll be a subversive in the stands, a thought arsonist. You'll be like a Frenchman.

No one can tell me that exchange isn't fun because it is but is it anything else? The mention of tennis inevitably reminds me of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

Is there great meaning in Stoppard's exchange? Isolated like that it doesn't sound like it. It just looks as if they're having fun with words and much of the time you could say the same about Powell's argy-bargying pair but when you consider all the other references to questions in Stoppard's play you start to realise that this might be a part of a bigger picture. I've only read the book the once but I'm not sure a similar search of You & Me would be as rewarding; I've tried but would be pleased to be proved wrong. I think for the most part Powell is simply having fun with words and he could just as easily have been influenced by Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal because in a 2006 interview[4]—so six years before You & Me was published—he himself cited this exchange from the Mailer, Vidal and Janet Flanner interview on The Dick Cavett Show:

MAILER: I would not hit anyone here, you're all too small.

CAVETT: Smaller?

MAILER: Intellectually smaller.

CAVETT: Perhaps you'd like another chair to help contain your giant intellect.

MAILER: I'll accept the chair if you'll accept fingerbowls.

CAVETT: Fingerbowls? Fingerbowls. I don't get that. Does anyone on our team [Vidal and Janet Flanner] want that one?

MAILER: Think about it.

CAVETT: Fingerbowls.

MAILER: Why don't you just read another question off your list, Cavett?

CAVETT: Why don't you just fold it five ways and put it where the moon don't shine?

But let's not be too quick to trivialise Powell's book. In a more recent interview[5] following the publication of You & Me Royal Young gets Powell talking about the lost art of the conversation:

POWELL: Conversations are the most direct way to connect with people. There's conversations and violence. There's a lot of phones; but I'm out of that field. They make me feel like a prisoner of war; there's not going to be any texting for me. The pre-paid phone is the frontier of my technological advance. I already had one voided by AT&T, cause I didn't pay as I went.

YOUNG: They want you to keep talking.

POWELL: They do. It's hard to say conversation has become a minimal thing, because look at the rise of mobile communications in the last 10 years. It used to be only the President had a mobile phone. Now everyone on earth, even if they have nothing else, they have a cell phone. It's a larger anthropological shift in my mind than even the tattoo age in the United States.

We live in a world where conversation exists as a thing in its own right. You & Me could easily be chat log. For the most part you can't tell they're in the same place. Nor does it matter. So although on the surface You & Me feels old fashioned it's also one of the most contemporary books out there and I'm a big fan of its bare bones approach to communicating a message. Calling it postmodern only does it a disservice.

Much of the time there is no great message:

      Why do we talk?
      Why would we not?
      I suspect that is why we talk: what would we do if we did not talk?
      Precious little else, darlin'.
      My point.
      Your point is that we do nothing but talk . . .
      And that if we cease, we do nothing, are nothing.
      Well, given how little we talk about, we are next to nothing already.
      I dispute you not.
      You brought this up, suggesting you might dispute it—I'm sorry, here I am talking inaccurately, doing the next-to-nothing thing we do sloppily. I mean to say: your bringing this up might suggest you are concerned with how little or nothing we are.
      No, I am content to be nothing.

but again there's more here than meets the eye because what we are talking about—who is doing the talking—are old men who are working their way towards being nothing. There's no indication that either of these men is demented but they freely admit to being senile:

      God I feel small and dumb.
      Anything happen?
      No, the usual small and dumb.
      When, what I want to know, did we feel otherwise?
      When we were five.
      When we were small and dumb.
      Yes, then we did not feel small and dumb.
      Were we large and smart?

You & Me rambles; it's not in a great rush to get anywhere. Our two curmudgeons lose the thread, pick it up a day or two later or forget about it completely. The "old codgers" vanish after about thirty pages never to reappear whoever they were. Towards the end the conversations do veer towards fears—or at least concerns—about death:

      I've about had it.
      Me too.
      I'm done.
      The battle is over.
      Not lost, or won, but over.
      Amen. Take me to funky town.

The review in The Metro says, "'Powell … holds a mirror up to what we have become and what we have lost, giving voice to a yearning that avoids sentimentality." It's a cracked mirror to be sure but within its fragmented images it does indeed paint a picture of modern society and not always a pretty one but there's no point crying about it. It holds your attention more than a nice, clean, polished, full length, frameless wall mirror from Argos ever will.

Not everyone's loved this book. Thomas Mallon in The New York Times Book Review wrote, "[S]scattershot aperçus do not make a novel. Any number of this book's offhand insights and hypotheses could be developed into full-blown stories that move instead of meander, that do more than click their way from one YouTube morsel to the next," and Dwight Garner in The New York Times said that the sound the book "mostly makes is that of a writer not hitting a dead end, exactly, but of a writer not appearing to try very hard. This short book, with its short chapters each topped by an ampersand, is mostly winding filler, talk that doesn't seem quite worthy of the name." They are, of course, entitled to their opinions. All I have to say in answer is: Remember the early responses to Godot.

In 2009 Dan Halpern interviewed Powell following the publication of his previous book, The Interrogative Mood. The book consists of 192 pages of nothing but questions and, as one might imagine, was also not well received by all. At the end of the interview Halpern makes this comment which I expect stands well today:

During my visit, Powell had been loath to defend himself from any criticisms, mostly happy to confess that if the stories had broken no hearts it was probably their own fault — that he'd just failed. But now, back from fishing, having caught no mullet and gearing up, finally, to shoot the raccoon, whose carcass he'd promised to the fisherman with the worm in his mouth, Powell said: "If you do what you mean to, if you ever can, that will come out on the page. But if you go around saying anything that seems preposterous is bad, that anything that doesn't look the way it's supposed to look is false and heartless — well, I think, I think — I think you do lose something."[6]

You can read extracts from the book here and here.


Padgett-Powell-author-photo-credit-Gately-WIlliams1Padgett Powell has taught writing at the University of Florida since 1984. He has published six novels and two collections of short stories. His debut novel, Edisto (1984), was nominated for the American Book Award . His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, Paris Review, Grand Street, Esquire, The New York Times Book Review and Magazine among others. Powell has won the Prix de Rome, the Whiting Writers Award, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the UK's oldest literary prize.




[1] 'An Improbable Business: PW Talks with Padgett Powell', Publishers Weekly, 20 April 2012

[2] John L. Kundert-Gibbs, No-thing is Left to Tell: Zen/Chaos Theory in the Dramatic Art of Samuel Beckett, p.80

[3] Quoted in 'Padgett Powell, author of You & I' – interview, The List, 18 October 2011

[4] Interview with Brian J. Barr in The Believer, September 2006

[5] 'Padgett Powell by Royal Young', Interview Magazine

[6] 'Southern Discomfort', The New York Times, 16 October 2009

The Wall

Posted: 07 Sep 2014 04:34 AM PDT


The crows have risen, and circle screeching over the forest. When they are out of sight I shall go to the clearing and feed the white crow. It will already be waiting for me. – Marlen Haushofer, The Wall

I read this book shortly after watching the first season of the television adaptation of Stephen King's Under the Dome and it's impossible not to compare the two although really the only thing they have in common is that an invisible and seemingly impenetrable barrier mysteriously appears one day imprisoning (or protecting, depending on your point of view) those within. In King's case it's the town of Chester's Mill in Maine; in Haushofer's it's a number of chalets and hunting lodges in a corner of the Salzkammergut in Upper Austria. The dimensions of King's dome are assessed quickly enough but the woman who narrates The Wall never learns the exact size or shape of whatever it is that's surrounding her. Because of where she's located it's not impossible that there are others somewhere in the mountains but pretty soon she starts to realise that the likelihood of anyone else having been trapped inside the wall is virtually nil and she, in very practical fashion, gets down to the day-to-day business of survival. The idea of rescue is also a possibility but she doesn't rest on her laurels or allow herself time to feel sorry for herself (or mourn the death of her family); she assumes it's going to take a long time if, indeed, anyone does come.

On the surface then her story is not so dissimilar a story to Robinson Crusoe or Cast Away; she has to work with what she's got. Luckily her cousin's husband, Hugo—whose hunting lodge she's been staying in—had been a bit of a hoarder and a hypochondriac so she has an excess of some very helpful things like medicines but there are also perishables she's going to run out of quickly like food. Her luckiest find is a cow, which she names Bella, but there are pros and cons of having a cow and the main problem is the milking which has to be done daily and so restricts how far she can travel. This is partially why she never manages to map the wall but this isn't something that really seems to bother her.

Film_poster_for_The_Wall_(2012_film)If I had one problem with the book (although, of course, my problem is with the character of the book's narrator) it's how little time she spends investigating the wall. One of the questions posed very early on in Under the Dome was whether rain would be able to penetrate the dome but the woman never wonders about how high the wall might be and, indeed, when the rains come I got no sense of relief. Let's face it, it might've been eight feet tall and she could've clambered over it. I'm being facetious when I say that but, in the book at least, she does give in to being trapped a little too readily. In the film adaptation (which I watched the day after finishing the book) there are more encounters with the wall, including crashing a Mercedes Benz into it (which wasn't in the novel but gave the special effects guys something to do), but even there I couldn't stop myself thinking that a part of her was relieved to be trapped, that she wasn't so much trapped as freed from a life she really wasn't revelling in much. She does talk about her life before but she doesn't pine after it. Significantly she never reveals the names of her husband or children.

She does talk about trying to dig under the wall at some future time. In fact she talks about digging a tunnel under it big enough to allow large animals to escape. Why she doesn't try sooner is that she realises she's protected within the wall. Outside the only person she can see is a man frozen; death must've come very quickly indeed. There are no birds, except dead ones on the ground, and no animals and no signs of human life for as far as she can see through her binoculars. Whether the danger has passed she can't be certain. (Again I had to wonder about the birds within the wall and why they didn't fly over it and why she didn't wonder why they didn't fly over it.)

We do know she survives two and a half years. Because of a tragedy (the deaths of her bull—it turned out the cow was pregnant—and Hugo's dog, a Bavarian bloodhound called Lynx) at this point in time she sits down to write a report, not that she expects anyone to ever read it, but everything in the book is leading up to these losses which she's struggling to come to terms with. Not that these are the only deaths in the book—she loses two cats along the way—and we know these deaths are coming because she talks about them in the past tense even though in her narrative they're still future. She has enough matches to last another couple of years, her crops have been more of a success than she could've hoped, the deer are plentiful and there are fish in the stream (although how the water penetrates the wall is another unexplored puzzle): her life may not be an easy one (and in this respect the film brought home to me just how hard some of the things she was describing must have been without the aid of machinery) and she's far from happy but she does note that, for the first time in her life, she is calm.

The book is keen in its blurb to suggest that multiple readings of The Wall are possible and an obvious bandwagon to jump on is the feminist one but really this is no feminist manifesto. It may well be a world without men but it's also a world without other women. Although, of course, there is a male in the book, Lynx the dog, who is the woman's support, protector and becomes, in her words, her "best friend". Sure there's no sex involved and I'm stretching a point but quite often I see points stretched in order to provide feminist readings of books that are just books. I'm not a feminist but then neither am I a masculinist; there's both room (and a need) for both sexes so I guess that makes me a humanist (without the capital h) although I've never really thought about it until now. Who reads Robinson Crusoe as a masculinist novel just because there're no women in it? It could be said that one of the things that drives the woman to keep surviving is the mother in her who refuses to leave her animals, the cow especially, to their own devices but as a man with pets to care for I don't see that as an especially feminine perspective. It's in our DNA to take care of things. And I think this desire is amplified when we're isolated—look at the Birdman of Alcatraz, for example.

One review said she didn't think men would like this book. And Doris Lessing wrote:

It is not often that you can say only a woman could have written this book, but women in particular will understand the heroine's loving devotion to the details of making and keeping life, every day felt as a victory.

I'm not sure I agree with either of them.

Of course this is also, strictly speaking, a work of speculative fiction and there are loads of last-man-on-earth-who-turns-out-not-be-the-last-man-on-earth stories to pick from although I can think of a few where we only have a cast of one. Not so many lThe Quier Earthast-woman-on-earth stories whether or not she proves to be the only person. In that respect this book is exceptional but the problems she faces aren't unique to women. She mostly, for example, enjoys the solitude but still gets lonely from time to time, especially after the death of the dog, and I suspect it's that overbearing loneliness that has driven her to write, to talk to an anonymous future reader. As post-apocalyptic tales go this is no The Road although like The Road we are kept in complete ignorance about what's happened or who's to blame. In that respect the book also reminded me a little of The Quiet Earth which investigates what happens after an attempt to establish a worldwide electrical grid leads to the mysterious disappearance of most of the earth's population; it's also a bloodless, silent apocalypse.

Human beings had played their own games, and in almost every case they had ended badly. And how could I complain? I was one of them and couldn't judge them, because I understood them so well. […] The great game of the sun, moon and stars seemed to be working out, and that hadn't been invented by humans. But it wasn't completed yet, and might bear the seeds of failure within it. I was only an attentive and enchanted onlooker; my whole life would be too short to grasp even the tiniest stage of the game. I'd spent most of my life struggling with daily human concerns. Now that I had barely anything left, I could sit in peace on the bench and watch the stars dancing against the black firmament.

As for the book being "a philosophical parable of human isolation" that it is, too. I'm always wary of words like 'parable' because they have a tendency to reduce people to cardboard cut-outs and there are moments in this book when, and this isn't helped by the fact we never know her name, we find ourselves thinking of the narrator as simply 'the woman' and not a person with wants and desires and perhaps this is partly because she is reduced to an automaton going through the motions necessary to maintain her world and keep herself and her animals alive. She gets depressed, naturally. She gets sick. She contemplates—although not very seriously—ending her life. What she doesn't seem to do is grieve. Clearly she hasn't left much of a life behind her. What she finds herself missing are practical things, things that would make her work easier—in the novel she doesn't have keys to the car for example—and treats like sugar and even bread although it's hard to imagine thinking of bread as a treat but then I've never had to live without it. She doesn't miss a man and by that I mean she doesn't miss sex; the subject is never broached and I very much doubt this is due to any special sensitivity on the author's behalf looking at her other work. Had the woman been older I might not struggle with that but she's only in her forties. There is something a little old-fashioned about her though, the way she talks about the animals when they're in season:

From all I've seen, being in love can't be a pleasant state for an animal. They can't know, after all, that it's a temporary thing; as far as they're concerned every moment is as eternity. Bella's gloomy calls, the laments of the old cat and Tiger's despair, nowhere a trace of happiness. And afterwards exhaustion, dull coats and cadaverous sleep.

(It's interesting that I've just read The Millstone which was written about the same time, another novel that gets labelled 'feminist' and which really isn't, and which also focuses on an essentially sexless woman.)

In a very literal sense this is a utopian novel. Bear in mind that the literal translation of utopia is "no place"; the real world is outside the wall. Inside is populated by innocents. Death is only a part of the natural order here as a result of old age, ill health, accident or a predator and what one needs to bear in mind about predatory behaviour is that it's not bad or evil. The only living creature within the wall capable of moral judgement is the interloper, the woman. The rest are governed by the instinct to survive. And even she finds the temptation to abandon civilised behaviour (hard not to think of Lord of the Flies here) not entirely unattractive. Utopian fiction is also escapist fiction. Odd then that so much dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction is being churned out at the moment when the escapist culture of the American Depression revolved around finding inexpensive forms of entertainment that diverted attention from life's hardships. I suppose all we can glean from what's coming out at the moment is: Things could be worse. Haushofer's novel is no Herland, however. It is also not a dream from which she can expect to wake up any day now.

In my dreams I bring children into the world, and they aren't only human children; there are cats among them, dogs, calves, bears and quite peculiar furry creatures. But they emerge from me, and there is nothing about them that could frighten or repel me.

The Year of the HareWe can read the novel, too, as an anti-rat-race novel like The Year of the Hare but the difference there is that Vatanen voluntarily—albeit on the spur of the moment—chooses to walk out of his old life and opt for a simpler way of doing things. So, no, the woman didn't opt to abandon her family but when the opportunity arose she didn't object much either: Oh there's an invisible wall. What a shame. I'll just have to make a new life for myself here. Luckily, unlike me (I'd last about a month and a half on my own), she's a practical sort. Some of the books she comes across are helpful but it's not as if she has access to the Internet and can just look up how to get a calf out of a cow when it's stuck.

You could even read the novel allegorically if you so choose. The woman is a writer. She was a housewife, as was Haushofer and as are many women novelists. Haushofer complained about lacking space to write and so here she provides her proxy with Woolf's "room of one's own" and an imaginary world to explore, one protected from all outside influences by a glass wall, the book's working title. How many writers, too, slog away day after day working on books that no one will ever read?

Of course the book could simply be about what it's like to be an outcast. Why else would the woman feel such empathy for the white crow ostracised by the rest of the flock?

On the whole this isn't an exciting book, indeed it can actually be a bit boring at times, but then the woman's life is boring. There is only one surprise near the end. We know her bull and dog die and she hints that they're killed but we don't learn the details until the moment's right on us and it all happens so quickly that within a page or two it's over. It does, however, change her life because she does mourn the loss of her dog and even imagines his ghost tagging along with her:

At times now, when I walk alone in the wintery forest, I talk to Lynx as I did before. I have no idea I'm doing it until something startles me and I fall silent. I turn my head and catch the gleam of a reddish-brown coat. But the path is empty: bare bushes and wet stones. I'm not surprised that I still hear the dry branches cracking under the light tread of his feet. Where else would this little dog's soul go haunting, if not on my trail? He's a friendly ghost, and I'm not afraid of him. Lynx, beautiful, good dog, my dog…

The unanswered question concerning the death of her animals reflects the book's bigger question, also unanswered, regarding the fate of humanity: Why? She—we—will never know. It's tempting to think a man pressed the proverbial button and maybe one did. Or maybe it was a woman. Now that would raise some interesting questions.

I enjoyed the book. I enjoyed the film adaptation, too, and, as always, was puzzled by what was left out (although little was changed to give the screenwriter his due). Why the frozen old man needed a frozen old wife I have no idea; it didn't hurt but I did expect them to revisit the scene as happens in the book, but maybe they blew the special effects budget on the car crash. As films of books go it's definitely one of the better ones—it took three years to complete—and what was especially nice for non-German speakers is that Martina Gedeck (who at times looked disconcertingly like a dishevelled and slightly-older Davina McCall) redid her voiceover in English for the DVD so no subtitles if you don't want them. Actual dialogue within the film is virtually non-existent. I would recommend both and I definitely felt the film enhanced my reading of the novel. You can read a considered review of the film here.

What is particularly impressive about the book is how it hasn't dated. It could've been written last week. How you read the book is entirely up to you. There's no right way although if you approach it with an agenda you'll likely be disappointed but that's the case with most things.


Marlen HaushoferMarlen Haushofer was born in Frauenstein in Austria in 1920. She studied German in Vienna and Graz, subsequently settling in Steyr. In 1941 she married Manfred Haushofer, a dentist. She later divorced then remarried her husband, and had two sons. Haushofer published her first novel, A Handful of Life, in 1955. In 1958, We Murder Stella was published. The Wall came out in 1963, and The Loft, her final novel, appeared in 1969. Haushofer received the Grand Austrian State Prize for literature in 1968. She died of cancer in Vienna in 1970.



Laura Kapelari, Feminist Utopia and Dystopia: Marlen Haushofer's Die Wand

An arranged faith

Posted: 01 Sep 2014 04:55 AM PDT


Doubt is not a pleasant condition,
but certainty is absurd – Voltaire

I wrote a poem back in 1996 about beliefs:


The thing about beliefs is
they don't need to be true.
That's not their job.

They're there because
so many things aren't true.
Nature abhors a vacuum.

19 December 1996

The word 'belief' is one I struggle with. Like all words the only way you can explain belief is by using other words and the most obvious synonym for 'belief' is 'faith' which I have less of a problem with. The first definition I learned regarding faith came from the Bible where Hebrews 11:1 says that faith is "the assured expectation of things hoped for, the evident demonstration of realities though not beheld." Of course the definition on its own doesn't really get to the nitty-gritty of what faith is. Late on in that same chapter (vs. 27) Paul talks about Moses "as seeing him who is invisible." Even though he had never seen God, he was as real to Moses as if he had seen him. His faith was based on experience and evidence. Of course he had the opportunity to talk directly to God and that'll go a long way to convincing anyone that someone is real. By Paul's day God had stopped making it so easy. Even Paul only got to hear the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus but he still reasoned that there was sufficient evidence in the world about us to convince anyone of the existence of a sentient creator. As he said to the Romans (1:20): "For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God." And yet there are more people than ever who don't believe in God. You would think that all science could possibly do is provide irrefutable proof of intelligent design in nature and yet that doesn't seem to have happened.

As you'll see from the previous paragraph, I know my Bible. I was brought up in a religious household—one that encouraged study and eschewed blind faith—and yet here I am as a grown man, having left the faith I was brought up in and disinterested in finding another. So have I stopped believing in God? I can't answer that question because I never believed in him in the first place which is odd because I have been through tons of evidence and can't refute it. Creation is every bit as believable as evolution. None of the evidence touched me, though. Proof requires more than corroborative evidence. It requires a willingness to accept that evidence.

I don't understand the concept of spirituality. I can appreciate things intellectually and emotionally but not spiritually. I learned facts and figures from the Bible and other literature but that was it. I could prove there was a God (as much as anyone these days can offer up proof) but that proof didn't affect me. Okay, I couldn't get to know God personally (even though I was encouraged to develop a 'personal relationship' with God) although I did have "the mind of Christ" (1 Cor. 2:16) but I found that trying to "walk in the footsteps of the faith" (Rom. 4:12) was unnatural and uncomfortable. I knew, for example, that fornication was a sin but I couldn't see why it was wrong. In 1966 being gay was a criminal offence in England but in 1967 it wasn't unless you crossed the border into Scotland where it still was (and continued to be until 1980). I'm not gay but my point is that perfect laws don't work in an imperfect world. I understand why God instigated the Law Covenant with Israel (which incorporated the Ten Commandments) because it condemned all of us to death (since no man could keep it, including Moses) and hence evidenced the need for a saviour, but here's the thing: there was no Law in Eden apart from a proviso that they didn't eat from a certain tree. The point's been made, the saviour has come and gone, the ransom paid, so whether we sin or not is neither here nor there.

The way I feel about my religious upbringing is the same way I'd feel about a wife my parents had arranged for me to marry as still happens in parts of the world. There will always be good and reasonable reasons why parents select the kind of prospective bride that they do. They know their son and his needs. And they care for him. Well I know all the reasons why my parents would want me to believe in their God but the fact is I look at him (based on the same evidence as was available to Paul) and feel nothing. In the first of the two "new" commandments that Jesus laid down before his disciples (summarising the essence of the whole Law of Moses) he said, "The most important one … is this: 'Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'" (Deut. 6:4) I don't love God. I don't hate God. I don't know God. I can see all his admirable qualities and I've read at length about how he's reportedly dealt with people—including sending his only-begotten son to Earth—but none of that matters to me. I'm with Patti Smith:

Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine
Meltin' in a pot of thieves wild card up my sleeve
Thick heart of stone my sins my own
They belong to me. Me

[from Gloria (In Excelsis Deo)]

I'm not an atheist. I'm not an agnostic. I'm not a believer. To be any one of these I would need to take a stance and the simple fact is I don't care anymore. In 2001 I wrote this poem which basically states my current position. man_sitting_in_bleachers_SMP0012543


(for Richard Brautigan)

A man cannot lose what he never had
but he can give up trying to get it.
Just walk off the track.
Come, join the rest of us on the bleachers.

It's that easy.
Catch your breath now.
It's too hot to run.

I've heard say parallel lines never meet.
Sometimes they seem to – in the distance –
they disappear over the horizon
so no one knows for sure.

25 May 2001

Of course I've no axe to grind with those who do find they have a need for God in their lives any more than I've no problems with people who choose to pay hundreds of pounds to listen to some opera or other and there was a time in my life I did go through the motions hoping that, by osmosis, I'd acquire a faith: elliotelijackson3-cr


I have heard there is a god
who looks for men of crushed spirits.

I don't know where to look for him.

But if he wants to find me
I will not hide.

23 March 1984

I don't like not getting things but there's a lot in this life that I don't get in addition to religion and opera and as I've grown older I've reconciled myself to never understanding some things or needing to understand them. And so I focus nowadays on what I'm drawn to. Not everyone walking along the same beach will stop and pick up the same rock or poke the same jellyfish with a stick. "Ezra … spent his entire life studying and obeying the Law of the Lord and teaching it to others." (Ezra 7:10), Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz spent his entire life studying and advancing logics such as mathematics and philosophy; Sigmund Freud spent his entire life studying human nature and childhood; Morihei Ueshiba spent his entire life studying martial arts; Karl von Frisch spent his entire life studying bees and won a Nobel Prize in 1973 for his research on that subject; Joseph Pilates spent his entire life studying the human form and exercise. You get the idea. It's not at all abnormal to focus on one area of interest to the exclusion of everything else. For God's sake, Haldan Keffer Hartline devoted nearly his entire life studying the eyes of horseshoe crabs and Dave Shealy's spent his entire life studying a smelly hominid cryptid known as the Skunk Ape!

I wasted so much time searching for the Holy Grail of my own spirituality. So what do you believe in, Jim? Fair question. I found a page where people listed ten things they believed in. Belief in this context really means certitude. People who believe in God are certain that he will do what he says; they have no doubts. I, on the other hand, am riddled with doubts. I'm fairly certain about a lot of things I'm fairly certain my wife's not going to leave me and run off with Sean Connery but experience has taught me that "time and unforeseen circumstance" (Eccl. 9:11) befall all men. I would like to write another novel but I'm far from certain that I will. The odds are I will based on my previous performance and there are still areas that interest me enough to want to write about them at length. But nothing's certain.

In that respect I do have a degree of faith in the unknown. The unknown is my subconscious and he plays a hugely important part in my writing. We don't exactly collaborate, though, but over the years I've learned to trust him. While I'm busying with other things, sleeping and stuff, he's fully occupied getting material ready for me to work on later. The writer Dario Ciriello posted this tweet a while back:

A good writer's subconscious always knows the full story. The challenge is to train the conscious mind to access and transcribe it.

Stephen King talks about "the boys in the basement":

The boys in the basement are the guys who actually do my heavy lifting. They're the muses. And we have a picture of muses as being very ethereal creatures, but I think they are non-union labour. They are hardworking guys with Camels rolled up in the sleeves of their shirts. – Lisa McRee, Kevin Newman, Stephen King's Bag of Bones, ABC Good Morning America, 23 Sep 1998

A much better image than the airy-fairy muse. I agree.

Every day though I wait for "a sign" (Matt. 12:38). Every thought I have I ask myself: Is this my subconscious tossing out an idea for me to develop? Mostly it's not. I have a very slow subconscious. He likes to mull over things for a long while. He definitely works in "mysterious ways" which is not a scripture by the way but from a poem by William Cowper.

A friend of mine once fell out with me over religion. She was committing adultery but said that God would understand. I disagreed. He might understand but he wouldn't condone her actions which is what she wanted. Although some effort was put into making up, our friendship was never the same afterwards. For the record, I'd no problems with her committing adultery, none whatsoever, but it wasn't my blessing she was looking for. She wanted to reform God in her own image and that's just not on. If you decide you want to believe in God then here's what you have to do: Find out what he wants and do it. Or you can shop around and look for a god who shares your values. Or you can do what Henry VIII did and just start your own religion.

A writer's subconscious is a little god. Let's not fool ourselves. He's the guy in charge. You can't apply the imperatives of industrial output to the mystery of creation. The writer William McIlvanney has said in interview, "I have always written from compulsion. I cannot even write to my own order, never mind anyone else's." The word 'compulsion' crops up often in interviews with him. He was 20,000 words into a novel called Tribute to the Minotaur when he stopped and never returned to it:

The reason wasn't so much a revulsion away from that book as an overwhelming compulsion towards another. – Alan MacGillivray, Natural Loyalties: The Work of William McIlvanney, The Association for Scottish Literary Studies

Of course I can't read that without thinking of Matthew 4:1: "Then Jesus was led by the spirit up into the wilderness." And that's what a new novel is, a wilderness. Not just a blank page, a desert of blank pages. Who in his right mind would go there willingly? Joan Didion writes in 'On Keeping a Notebook':

Although I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singularly blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up. Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.

Lil DevilI'm not sure 'loss' is the right word for me. When I write I'm looking for something I never had in the first place. Feeling that something is missing is not necessarily the same as loss although I expect the feelings are not dissimilar. I want to rearrange the world to suit me. The world is too big and uncooperative so I make do with a virtual world and in that world I become "like God, knowing good and evil" (Gen. 3:5). Maybe I don't have a bunch of hardworking guys with Camels rolled up in the sleeves of their shirts inside me. Maybe it's a wee devil.

The Waterproof Bible

Posted: 24 Aug 2014 04:40 AM PDT


[T]he only difference between a happy ending and a sad ending is where you decide the story ends – Andrew Kaufman, The Waterproof Bible

Back in the good ol' days there was real and unreal and that was it; it was one thing or t'other. Then all these other realisms started appearing: surrealism, magic realism, hyperrealism, neorealism, pseudorealism. Suddenly it all got very confusing. Confusion, of course, is a state of mind. And if you were looking for a state of mind in which to approach The Waterproof Bible I would aim for this one: Things only get confusing if you let them get confusing. Accept what's presented on the page as reality even though a) that reality doesn't match the one you're comfortable with and b) it stretches the laws of physics (and possibly credulity) beyond breaking point. Just suspend disbelief, sit back and enjoy the ride. It's not hard. Fans of science fiction do it all the time. We accept concepts like transwarp beaming—which even its inventor describes (will describe) as "like trying to hit a bullet with a smaller bullet, whilst wearing a blindfold, riding a horse"—without batting an eye so the notion that another race of sentient humanlike creatures exists under the earth's oceans and have gone undetected for millennia isn't such a stretch and the fact that a woman could be born with the ability to project her emotions is nothing. Oddly enough the one thing I found impossible to accept in this book is that the homes of these underwater denizens have stairs. I don't care what universe this book is set in there is no way anyone needs stairs under the sea. That aside I got on just fine.

Setting the kind of realism Andrew Kaufman writes aside, the reason he doesn't churn out straightforward stories is made clear in an extract from this essay written after Alice Munro received the Nobel Prize for Literature:

42. I just don't like Realism. I find it dull. I find it adequate to document the whats of a world; what it looked like, what the politics were, what the structure of someone's day was. But it's clumsy at best when it tries to capture emotional reality. Even in the hands of a master like Munro, Realism fails to capture the heart. No story where a couple talk, then break up over dinner will have the power of a story where, in between the main course and desert, the girl grows wings and flies away. That poor guy sitting at the table, with everybody else in the restaurant looking at him, broken and stunned: that's what it feels like to get dumped.

43. Give me Aimee Bender over Alice Munro any day.

44. And I'm pretty sure I'd feel that even if I grew up in Hamilton or Montreal or Barcelona. Realism doesn't work for me.

45. At best it's a nature vs. nurture argument. The nature of my love of the metaphoric and the nurture of growing up in the shadow of Alice Munro: they both contributed. Their influence cannot be divided.

For as short a book as this is there's a lot packed into it. We have no less than five storylines and I wasn't surprised to discover that the book began life as three separate novellas. Arguably the main one, although not the first one, is the story of two Aquatics, Aby (Aberystwyth, although why she's named after an historic market town in Wales I have no idea)


and her estranged mother Margaret, and Aby's long journey to try and reconcile with her mother before Margaret dies of something called "ryð" or "the rust":

As every Hliðafgoð knows, the ryð signals the beginning of the end. Some have lived for years after its appearance, others for only hours; most live for another few weeks. No cure has ever been found.

The next storyline concerns Rebecca Reynolds. The book's opening chapter is entitled 'The woman who couldn't keep her feelings to herself' and when we meet her she's sitting in the back of a limousine with her brother-in-law Lewis on their way to her sister's—his wife's—funeral. For some inexplicable reason the limo's stalled in the middle of an intersection:

        [S]he looked down at the carpeted floor and remembered that she was in a limousine, travelling to her sister's funeral. Her grief, sadness and guilt returned.
         As Rebecca felt these emotions, Lewis became overwhelmed with them as well. The grief, sadness and guilt were heavy and painful. It had been three days and eleven hours since he'd discovered his wife's body, but until now Lewis had felt nothing. A sense of relief flooded through him. Then he remembered that he was sitting beside Rebecca and that these feelings weren't his own, but hers.

While they're there a white Honda Civic driven by a woman with green skin almost crashes into them. This is Aby who's getting to grips with driving for the first time but we have to wait for a few chapters before Andrew takes us back in time and explains how she got to that point in time.

Anyway, having got out of the limo to get a better look at this strange-looking woman before she flees, Lewis decides he doesn't want to go to his wife's funeral:

         "Lewis? Where are you going?" Rebecca asked, projecting her confusion across two lanes of traffic.
         "I can't go to the funeral."
         "Why not?"
         "Because she'll be there. She'll see me. She'll know."
         "Know what?"
         "I'm so sorry."
        Gesturing with his right hand, Lewis hailed a taxi, which stopped in front of him. "You'll regret this," Rebecca shouted. Her anger reached pedestrians on the far side of the street, causing some to stop and stare, while others scurried away. Lewis climbed inside the cab and shut the door. He looked straight ahead but continued to feel Rebecca's anger as clearly as if it were his own.

hotel_fort_garry_lgeHe heads to the airport and buys a one-way ticket to Halifax, Nova Scotia; on arriving there he buys a one-way ticket to Vancouver, British Columbia; he doesn't stay there but buys a third ticket and some twenty-six hours after his wife's funeral will have ended he finds himself in the Fort Garry Hotel, "the second-finest hotel … in Winnipeg, Manitoba," waiting for a barber; he's decided a change of image is in order. Lewis is looking for some sort of closure because he blames himself for his wife's death:

        On the morning his wife died, Lewis had decided to let her sleep in. He got the newspaper, made coffee and relished the day's normalcy. Ninety minutes later he went back upstairs to wake her. But she did not wake up. Lewis stood over her, counted to fifteen and then shook her. He checked for a pulse but couldn't find one. Her skin was cold.
        He then walked downstairs and began reading the business section of the newspaper. It was the only part of the paper he never read. […] He'd reached the Gs when he set down the paper and walked back up the stairs.
        In his mind he rehearsed the conversation he would have with her. He pictured her stretching, her arms over her head. You'll never believe it, he'd say. I thought you were dead. With a small, embarrassed smile on his lips, Lewis opened the bedroom door, but Lisa was still lying in bed. He checked for a pulse. He still couldn't find one. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he watched daylight brighten the room. He checked once more and then dialled 911. The receiver was still in his hand as he sat down beside her.
         "I'm so sorry," he whispered, having already begun to believe that his failure to find a pulse had been what killed her.

As it happens Lewis doesn't find closure, not at first anyway, but he does find God. Or at least a woman who claims to be God, if only on a part-time basis:

        "Being God isn't a full-time gig?"
        "Who would I invoice?"

Also in Manitoba at this time—in Morris, a small town in the middle of the Red River Valley and just down the road from Winnipeg—is Stewart Findlay:

For three years, six months and one day Stewart had been the Prairie Embassy Hotel's only employee. This, less three weeks, was exactly the amount of time he'd been building [a] sailboat … in the middle of the Canadian Prairies. Or, more specifically, on a bend of the Red River that could float a boat only once a year, for a few days during spring runoff.

Stewart is Rebecca's husband. His employer is Aby's mother who after lived for many years "unwatered" had lost most of her green skin tone and is living as a Siðri, which is what the Hliðafgoð call us humans. I referred to Aby and her mother as "Aquatics" earlier but that's not strictly correct. Aquaticism is a religion and only Aby continues to practice.

And then there are the Richardsons, Kenneth and his son Anderson:

Kenneth Richardson had begun rainmaking in 1978, at the age of twenty-two. He'd had no one to teach him but had stumbled onto a process of filling small cloth bags with silver iodide and attaching the bags to a flock of starlings he tamed and trained himself. The birds, sixty or seventy at a time, would fly into a cloud. The silver iodide would fall out through tiny holes he'd cut in the cloth. The cloud would be seeded, and rain would begin to fall roughly five minutes later. Kenneth was never sure how it worked. He just knew it did.

Years later he brings his son into the family business but when Anderson invents a new way of making rain using car batteries and a kite the two fall out and haven't spoken for years. See a theme here in the book? They divvy up their territory but, having forgotten about Canada, end up both been called to attend to the drought that's been plaguing the area for some fifty-four days. Still refusing to even acknowledge the presence of each other they end up booked into adjoining rooms in Prairie Embassy Hotel and a day or two later one or the other (or indeed both of them) does manage to bring the rain. A rainstorm of biblical proportions.

EZ Self StorageOne other player who deserves mention, although his storyline is entwined with Rebecca's, is Edward Zimmer. Edward Zimmer is in charge of E.Z. Self Storage which is where Rebecca rents unit #207 which is where she keeps her emotional baggage, literally:

        When Rebecca turned fourteen, she began collecting mementos from all the good moments in her life. Her emotions had become so powerful and important to her that when one of them left her, she felt incredibly vulnerable. Keeping these feelings of joy to herself kept her from feeling exposed. It gave her some privacy. It soon became a habit that every time Rebecca experienced a moment that produced any significant emotion, happy or sad, she stored a souvenir.
        The number of boxes under her bed grew and grew. By the time she was sixteen, the shoeboxes were stacked three high and took up all the space under her bed. When she went to university, she took the shoeboxes with her and rented apartments based on closet space. When the closets weren't big enough, she got rid of her roommate and used the second bedroom. Then the living room. Then the kitchen. Finally, Rebecca rented unit #207 from E.Z. Self Storage near the corner of Queen and Broadview in downtown Toronto and moved all of her boxes there, where they were safely secured under lock and key.


        Other than Stewart, [Zimmer] was the only person Rebecca had ever trusted with the secret of her collection. Somehow it had seemed not only permissible, but necessary, to confess to Edward the true nature of the objects she stored in unit #207. It was a confidence he had never betrayed.

What will Edward do when Rebecca decides the time has come to empty out her unit, to emotionally detach from her past?

So what's going on here? Is this allegory, symbolism, a fairy tale or a bit of everything? I'm going to go with the latter. You can read it as straight fantasy or science fiction but there's obviously a message—well, several messages—underneath. It's clearly a book about how easy it is to lose connections be they with another individual, yourself or your faith. The Richardsons fall out over something or nothing as far as I'm concerned but it was important to them. The same goes for the Aquatics. I grew up in a society where religion mattered. Hell, what football team you supported mattered. I turned my back on all that and haven't spoken to the surviving members of my own family in about fifteen years so I empathised strongly with Margaret. Beliefs can be important. They can also be debilitating. Look at Lewis whose life is crippled by guilt because of his ridiculous belief that his failure to find his wife's pulse killed her. It is more or less ridiculous than the Aquatic's belief in vilja?

An Aquatic will never question anything that happens by chance. In fact, the greater the coincidence, the more an Aquatic believes it was meant to be. This concept is called vilja, which translates as 'God's cheat', the idea being that what appears to be chance is how God influences the plot of your life. If something extremely improbable happens by chance, it wasn't chance at all, but Gods hand arranging the events of your life to meet the divine will.

I knew a man who said he didn't believe in coincidence, only God-incidence. I thought—still think—that he's a nutter and I can quote scripture to prove that he's a nutter but let's not go there. I wrote a poem once:


The thing about beliefs is
they don't need to be true.
That's not their job.

They're there because
so many things aren't true.
Nature abhors a vacuum.

19 December 1996

People believe in the darndest things and for the daftest of reasons. When Aby's car nearly crashed into the limo Lewis was in, this was how he reacted:

He'd been confident that the grief he so desperately wanted to feel would soon arrive. But now, having nearly been killed by a woman with green skin, it was easy to believe that stranger things could happen and that his grieving might never begin

Or what about Rebecca and her mother's bracelet?

Rebecca had to leave the room, but she needed something to take with her. An object she could hold, something that would continually confirm that her mother had come home. She knew she couldn't take the pill bottles, because their absence would be noticed. She looked around, but there were very few things in the room that hadn't been there before her mother's return. Then she saw the identification bracelet that her mother had been wearing when they'd carried her into the house.


For the next six weeks, while Rebecca's mother remained in bed, Rebecca carried the plastic bracelet with her at all times. She held it in her hand while she slept. She kept it in the front right pocket of whichever pair of pants she was wearing. She never forgot to bring it with her, not even once. When someone asked her how her she was doing, Rebecca could just say fine and they would believe her.

Or what about these weird beliefs?

It is important to understand that, for devout Aquatics, simply being unwatered is a sin. At the core of the religion is a belief in the Finnyfir, or Great Flood. In this way, Aquaticism is not unlike Judaism or Christianity, but with one central difference: where those religions believe God flooded the world in order to start again, Aquatics believe God simply liked water better.


While Aquatics believe that it's a sin to breathe the air, it is a minor sin. Within Aquaticism, there is only one sin that is considered an act so blasphemous it is beyond forgiveness, and this is to die with air-filled lungs. This, Aquatics believe, curses your soul to wander disembodied and alone, unwatered and unforgiven for eternity.


Devoted Aquatics, which Aby certainly was, believe that losing your keys not only predicts, but elicits mental illness. To lose one's keys is the equivalent of losing one's mind.

Not knowing about the existence of these marine creatures when Lewis meets God, he doesn't think to ask her whether she prefers water to land, but he does ask a question that I think would be at the top of many people's lists of things to ask God if they got half a chance:

        "Why do bad things happen to good people?"
         "Because it makes a good story."
        Lewis did not know how to respond. Both her response and how quickly she gave it were unexpected. "That's…cruel," he said finally.
         "You gotta think about it as if you were dead. Because at the end of your life, all you've got is the story of it. If you were guaranteed a happy ending, how satisfied would you be? You'd want some drama! Some intrigue! You'd want to feel that you'd struggled and overcome, even if you'd lost."
         "So death just makes a good ending?"
         "Works every time," she said.

Only one of the main characters dies by the end of the book but I'm not sure that necessarily guarantees a sad ending; that's not what God meant. For a story about a bunch of sad people there's actually a lot of humour to be found in this book. Aby is a fish out of water metaphorically at least since I assume she's a mammal and not an amphibian although her genus is ambiguous and don't get me started on her ability to live in both salt and fresh water. Her ability to cope—and go undetected—in this strange land is as remarkable as it is unbelievable but it's always entertaining Morkto see Morks and Datas struggle with everyday human activities. Balancing humour and seriousness is not always easy. A little leaven goes a long way. I think Andrew gets it about right although the ending was—perhaps unavoidably—a bit on the sentimental side and sentiment is even harder to work with than humour.

The book ends with a flood. The symbolism there's perhaps a bit heavy-handed but it works even if the physics do not; I'm thinking here about the water flooding a five-storey hotel. Of course not everyone's caught in the flood—Rebecca's some eleven hundred miles away, for example—but most of the players are. Some can swim to safety; others board a leaky "ark" and set off to rescue whoever they can in Winnipeg.

The only difference between a happy ending and a sad ending is where you choose to end the story. I doubt Kaufman thought of that first—God alone knows who did—but he must've had that in mind as he brought this one to an end. Assuming, of course, that any story ends when an author stops typing. For me this one hasn't ended yet. To be honest I can't get it out of my head and even when I've moved on to the next book I can see myself harking back to this one again and again. This is the third book I've read by Andrew. I loved his first book, All My Friends are Superheroes; and I liked his third, The Tiny Wife; The Waterproof Bible was his second and, in his opinion, his best. I think it possibly is although I do have a special soft spot for anything to do with superheroes. (Recently read Charles Yu's Third Class Superhero.) Despite the fantastical aspects of the book each of the characters is very human, even the two non-humans.

To be fair, the ending is probably the weakest thing about the book and I think the problem there is there are too many storylines. It feels as if only the Aby storyline ends properly and the rest just run out of gas; we expect everyone to get over their personal crises and get on with their lives eventually, and a lot of that will happen after the book's finished, but only Aby gets to close one door and open a new one. I was reading a post by a book club based in Bournemouth and this was what they had to say about the ending:

We had trouble remembering how this book ended, even the members who had only just finished the day of the meet, it just wasn't memorable. Although it didn't have any loose ends, it was too sudden and still left us asking questions. We did discuss that the ending seemed rushed, but was that reflecting the fact that there was a genuine urgency in each of the characters stories?

What is also notable from this article is how much the book polarised opinions:

Nineteen people came to this meeting and gave the book an average score of 6.3 out of 10, our lowest being 1, and our highest score was 8.

I can see why but I still think 1 is very harsh criticism. I liked it. I wouldn't have sat down the day after finishing the book and written almost 4000 words about it if I didn't. I have more book reviews written than I know what to do with so I know it'll be a while before I'll be able to find a gap in which I can post this but this is a book I wanted to promote. If a guy can't promote books he loves on his own blog then I don't know what the world's coming to. An end most likely.

You can read a good interview with Andrew Kaufman here where he talks a bit about The Waterproof Bible.

I'll leave you with this video interview with him:


Andrew%20Kaufman_0Andrew Kaufman was born in the town of Wingham, Ontario. This is the same town that Alice Munro was born in, making him the second best writer from a town of 3000. Descending from a long line of librarians and accountants, his first published work was All My Friends Are Superheroes, a story following the adventures of a man turned invisible only to his wife. This novella, first published by Coach House Books in Canada, has also been published in the UK and translated into Italian, French, Norwegian, German, Korean, Spanish and Turkish. He has since published The Waterproof Bible, The Tiny Wife, Selected Business Correspondence and Born Weird. He is also an accomplished screenwriter for film and television, and has completed a Directors Residence at the Canadian Film Centre. He lives in the East Oz district of downtown Toronto with his wife, the film editor Marlo Miazga, and their two children, Phoenix and Frida. He's currently working on something called The Waterfields and that's as much as I know.

Twilight of the Eastern Gods

Posted: 17 Aug 2014 04:00 AM PDT


Am I a gangster or murderer?
Of what crime do I stand
Condemned? I made the whole world weep
At the beauty of my land.
Boris Pasternak from 'Nobel Prize'

This is both an old and an odd book. The copyright says 1978 but its origins date back to 1961 which is when the short story 'A Summer in Dubulti' which forms the basis of the first of this novel's five chapters appeared in print, although the events described date back to the late fifties. Other fragments followed over the next fifteen years which Kadare assembled and buried within a collection along with two other pieces, but even there what was published was not the book I've just read. In 1981 a French translation came out and Kadare, according to the English translator David Bellos, "used this opportunity to smuggle back into the novel some of the more forthright passages about girls that had been omitted from the Albanian 'original'" but please be assured this is no Lady Chatterley's Lover (which was published in 1959); if memory serves me right our young protagonist has sex once (maybe twice) and there're no titillating accounts of his night-time gymnastics. Here's one of the racier bits (or maybe the only racy bit):

Without waiting for a response from her sister [who wants to go for walk in the woods], she took my hand and pulled me towards her bedroom …

Shocking, what? The French version was revised in 1998 and what Canongate has just published is an English translation of that version, not a direct translation from the Albanian. This has been the case with all the novels that are available in English; seven of which that I'm aware of having been handled by Bellos.

In the west we're so used to freedom of speech that's it's really hard to imagine a world where a sentence like that would have to be smuggled into a novel. Maybe in the 1880's but in the 1980's? The simple fact is that even today people are being thrown into prison for expressing their opinions on paper. What's amazing about Kadare is how he managed to survive all these years under the Hoxha regime. It's not been by kow-towing but it has been by biding his time and picking his battles. So we've had to wait a long time to read about Kadare's youthful experiences at the Gorky Institute of World Literature and how Russia reacted to Pasternak's being awarded the Nobel Prize. Was it worth the wait? Not really. Now so much is known about the USSR that this is very old news. This doesn't mean it's not worth reading but now it's an historical document. Had it been published in the sixties (even if it had to be smuggled out of Albania and only appeared in the west) people would've DrZhivago_Asheetsat up and paid attention. The 1965 film adaptation of Doctor Zhivago was a spectacular box office hit. Can you imagine how people would've responded had they learned just how Russia reacted when they learned one of their own was to be awarded the Nobel Prize primarily for this novel although his nomination had been on the cards for years? Even fifty years on it's upsetting.

But then maybe you don't know. To be honest I didn't. The information's all in Wikipedia. It's no big secret. But I doubt many people know the full story. Not that we get the full story here. What we get are Kadare's protagonist's experiences and, to be honest, he's a bit too interested in his lacklustre love life to worry about poor old Boris Pasternak and his troubles. He's astute enough to realise, however, that Pasternak has only two options: refuse the prize or get on a plane to Stockholm and not expect to be allowed back into the country:

On the radio from five a.m. until midnight, on television, in newspapers and magazines and even in children's comics, the renegade writer was being splattered with venom. As was customary in cases of this kind, the bristling statements of Soviet literati were regurgitated by workers and collective farmers. Newspapers apologised for being able to publish only a minute proportion of the tens of thousands of letters and telegrams pouring in from the four corners of the Soviet lands. Among them were expressions of outrage from oil drillers, drama students, Orthodox priests, Bolshoi ballerinas, mountain climbers, atomic physicists, beekeepers, Caspian Sea salt-rakers, reformed mystics, the mute and so forth. […] Most of the students on our course had also sent in statements and expected to see them in print in due course. One of them was […] Maskiavicius, even though he'd told me the previous day that Pasternak, despite his turpitude, was worth a hundred times more than any of the other runts of Soviet literature.

The thing is Kadare is not a Russian writer. He's an Albanian and so can view events with some detachment. Being an Albanian may mean little to you or me (most of us couldn't point to Albania on a map of the world) but there are certain countries around the world where national identity is a big thing, a really big thing, and Albania is one of them. I discovered this when I reviewed the first novel of Kadare's that I read, The Ghost Rider. It's a very important novel, too, even though it's actually a retelling of an old folk tale, the legend of Kostandin and Doruntine. He references it several times in Twilight of the Eastern Gods but unless you're an Albanian (or have read The Ghost Rider or at the very least my review of the book) its significance will slip by you.

During the fifties young Albanian students were often sent to educational establishments in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Soviet aid was generous in those years. But by the late fifties the relationship between the USSR's new rulers and the Communist leader of Albania, Enver Hoxha (a diehard Stalinist), were cooling and we see evidence in Kadare's book where the young man's called to his country's embassy:

[W]e were urged to limit, as far as we could, all relations with Muscovites for the time being. 'I mean especially young female Muscovites…' he added. My heart sank, not so much from what the counsellor had just said but from his having said it without a shadow of a smile. […] 'You will therefore have to stop dating them,' he went on, in what sounded to me like a weary voice. He spoke for two more minutes, stressing that relations between the two countries were good, telling us not to be unnecessarily alarmed and especially not to mention any of this to anyone.

Not that the boy pays a blind bit of attention to that advice but then he's young and stupid. Stupid as far as women goes but in all other respects he can see the writing on the wall.

Possibly the most striking section in the book is where he takes on the mantel of Dante and describes the various floors on the Gorky Institute:

First floor: that's where the first-year students stay; they've not yet committed many literary sins. Second floor: critics, conformists, playwrights, whitewashers. Third … circle: dogmatics, arse-lickers and Russian nationalists. Fourth circle: women, liberals and people disenchanted with socialism. Fifth circle: slanderers and snitches. Sixth circle: denaturalised writers who have abandoned their own language to write in Russian…

In an interview when asked if he was happy during his stay at the institute Kadare responded:

"Yes. Very happy."

But then he catches himself as though he might have given the wrong impression. "I was happy… as a human being. But I was none the less aware that I was in a college that was somehow twisted. The Gorky Institute was a factory for conformist, dogmatic writers and, because I understood that, I was saved."

Gorky Institute

In his Paris Review interview he expands on what he means here when he says he was "saved":

At the institute I was disgusted by the indoctrination, which in a way saved me. I kept telling myself that on no account must I do what they taught me but the exact opposite. Their official writers were all slaves of the party, except for a few exceptions like Konstantin Paustovsky, Chukovsky, Yevtushenko.

I understand completely where he's coming from. I recently watched a documentary about the seventies in the UK and it really was a miserable time as far as the country was concerned but I was young and so wrapped up in my own life and loves that I really was only vaguely aware of the bigger picture. In the same interview Kadare admits:

"There was a classmate I had a relatively long affair with—but then I decided it was not the fashion." I think he means that personal attachment was viewed as anti-Communist. "Long-term relationships were considered out-of-date. One's friends and classmates were the real enemy—it was worse than having the police on your tail! Especially in Moscow. They would say, 'Are you still with that girl there? Time to change!' And I think it's the greatest failure of my life that I dropped girls that I liked because comrades told me to. It was complete madness."

Learning this we can see that the narrator of the novel is not Kadare even if some of the events in the book are (for example, his chancing upon a manuscript copy of part of Doctor Zhivago days before the furore broke out). Our young protagonist spends most of the book pining over a lost love, Lida, in fact during the chapter where the vilification of Pasternak comes to its head he's probably more upset by the fact Lida's dumped him and taken up with a fellow student called Stulpanc. The fault there lies squarely with him because in a drunken stupor—it seems college students are the same the world over—he handed over her phone number having decided he wanted to have nothing to do with her. All very childish.

The problems really started for Kadare, of course, when he returned to Albania. Hoxha unsettled the literati when he sided with the upcoming writers when a dispute with the old guard arose which was a clever move because he was in effect putting down a deposit on their allegiance and forming his own nomenklatura who in time he expected to function in exactly the same way as Stalin has expected the writers, artists and composers of his day to behave, as mouthpieces of the state and not of the individual artist. So Kadare has had to tread carefully over the years. Referring to The Great Winter, a 1977 novel in which he portrayed Hoxha in a somewhat flattering light, Kadare said the book was "the price he had to pay for his freedom" although when you look at the book it's obvious he's using broad strokes; the official response was neither lavish praise nor prohibition. It was published, yes, but he did get his knuckles rapped later on: in 1975 Kadare's privileged position ended with the publication of 'The Red Pashas', a poem which satirized Albania's inefficient bureaucracy. He was subsequently forced into internal exile in a small central Albanian village and forbidden to publish his works; the ban lasted for three years. Kadare's responses to questions posed by Ben Naparstek are worth reading but are a bit long to reproduce here.

2499774In 1991, when the coast was clear and he could speak his mind (he'd sought political asylum in France by this time), Kadare wrote, in Albanian Spring: The Anatomy of Tyranny:

A writer is the natural enemy of dictatorship. […] Dictatorship and literature and only exist together as two wild beasts that have each other by the throat. Each […] is capable of wounding the other in different ways. The writer's wounds seem horrible because they come at once. But those the writer inflicts on dictatorship are like a time bomb, and they never heal.

One has to wonder what good Kadare would've done had be somehow managed to get Twilight of the Eastern Gods published at the time. Look what happened to Pasternak. Kadare had to undergo similar with regard to his books The Winter of Great Solitude [an earlier version of The Great Winter] and The Palace of Dreams. So why stay? For the same reason Pasternak chose to decline the Nobel Prize. He wrote to Khrushchev:

I cannot conceive of my destiny separate from Russia, or outside it. Whatever my mistakes or failings, I could not imagine that I should find myself at the centre of such a political campaign as has been worked up round my name in the West. Once I was aware of this, I informed the Swedish Academy of my voluntary renunciation of the Nobel Prize. Departure beyond the borders of my country would for me be tantamount to death and I therefore request you not to take this extreme measure with me.

This is how Kadare feels about being Albanian. But he was in it for the long haul. There have been seemingly braver writers: On October 5, 1953, the writer Kasëm Trebeshina wrote an open letter to Hoxha criticising the obsession with socialist realism shared by the Party and the Writers' Union. His predictable reward was seventeen years in gaol and only since the fall of Communism has his work begun to appear in print in Albania. In the Paris Review interview Kadare responds:

From 1967 to 1970 I was under the direct surveillance of the dictator himself. Remember that, to the great misfortune of the intellectuals, Hoxha regarded himself as an author and a poet and therefore a "friend" of writers. As I was the country's best-known writer, he was interested in me. In such a situation I had three choices: to conform to my own beliefs, which meant death; complete silence, which meant another kind of death; or to pay a tribute, a bribe. I chose the third solution by writing The Long Winter.

All of this leaves me with mixed feelings. What would I have done? I'm certainly not a brave man but I'd be genuinely interested to learn how many truly brave men (and women, of course) there are out there. I think we like the idea of bravery just as we like the ideas of honesty and decency and all the rest. Or maybe it's heroism we like the idea of and actual bravery—here I am referencing Huxley once more—is "pretty squalid" when compared with how we see bravery portrayed in films, TV shows and even newscasts. Is Kadare's approach so different to that of, say, Shostakovich who, following his second denunciation, found himself having to compose three categories of work: film music to pay the rent, official works aimed at securing official rehabilitation, and serious works "for the desk drawer"? His response to the first you might recall was the Fifth Symphony with its subtitle, "An artist's creative response to just criticism".

It's too late now to change what happened in Russia and Albania. It's probably too late to stop what's happening in China and Mexico right now. But the Twilight of the Eastern Gods is a valid—although not the most significant—contribution to the world literature that underlines the belief that freedom of speech should be an absolute human right. The evidence is growing. It was a shame what Pasternak went through but what would be a real shame is that he went through it and nothing ever changed. That said, this is not Kadare's best work although it has its moments. It might have been realistic to include all the romance (for want of a better word) but it does take away from the momentous events going on all around him and yet strangely enough I felt short-changed on both counts.

Other reviews of Kadare's book by me:


ismail_kadareIsmail Kadare was born in 1936 in Gjirokastër, in the south of Albania. He studied in Tirana and Moscow, returning to Albania in 1960 after the country broke ties with the Soviet Union. He is known for his novels, although he was first noticed for his poetry collections. He stopped writing poems in the 1960s and focused on short stories until the publication of his first novel, The General of the Dead Army. From 1963 he has been a novelist. In 1996 he became a lifetime member of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences of France. In 1992, he was awarded the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca; in 2005, he won the inaugural Man Booker International Prize and in 2009 the Prince of Asturias Award of Arts. He has divided his time between Albania and France since 1990. He began writing very young, in the mid-1950s but published only a few poems. His works have been published in about thirty languages.

The Awakening

Posted: 10 Aug 2014 04:57 AM PDT

the awakening

I would give up the unessential; I would give up my money, I would give up my life for my children; but I wouldn't give myself. I can't make it more clear; it's only something I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me. – Kate Chopin, The Awakening

Canongate Books have just republished Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening. In her e-mail to me their publicist wrote:

First published in 1899, this radical novel sent shockwaves through American society and continues to speak to readers over one hundred years later. Widely regarded in the States as one of the forerunners of feminist literature alongside Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and Flaubert's Madame Bovary, it is practically unknown in the UK—a fact we hope to change with this beautiful new edition, introduced by Barbara Kingsolver.

I have to say I hadn't heard of the book and if pressed I would've said Chopin was a contemporary writer. The only example of early Feminist literature I was aware of (and have read) is The Yellow Wallpaper by a fellow American, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which precedes this novel by seven years, although I did know Gilman also wrote Herland which is on my to-read list. Gilman was a prominent American feminist and a lecturer for social reform but in an interview David Chopin makes some interesting observations about his grandmother:

Kate was neither a feminist nor a suffragist, she said so. She was nonetheless a woman who took women extremely seriously. She never doubted women's ability to be strong. She came from a long line of strong women whom she loved and respected, the great-grandmother, grandmother, mother affiliation. She had strong women friends including intellectual women. Her lack of interest in feminism and suffrage did not have to do with a lack of confidence in women nor did it have a lack to do with a lack of any desire for freedom. She simply had a different understanding of freedom. She saw freedom as much more a matter of spirit, soul, character of living your life within the constraints that the world makes [or] your God offers you, because all of us do live within constraints.


I think she was an exceptionally talented and interesting woman and if I resist labelling her feminist or suffragist, or claiming her for a specific view of what women require or what women's independence requires, women's freedom requires. I resist it because I think she's much larger and more important than that. I don't think we do her any honour or further our own understanding by tying her to a particular political cause. I think she really was a dedicated and talented writer, who worked very hard to capture ineffable, delicate ideas and feelings in a prose that would do them justice. [bold mine]

A very brief summary then:

Edna Pontellier is an obedient wife and mother vacationing at Grand Isle with her family. While there she becomes close to a young man named Robert Lebrun. Before they act on their mutual romantic interest in each other, Robert leaves for Mexico.

From the 1982 film adaptation The End of August

Edna is lonely without his companionship, but shortly after her return home to New Orleans she becomes involved with Alcée Arobin. Although she doesn't love Arobin, he does awaken various sexual passions within her.

Concurrent to Edna's sexual awakening is her growing need for independence. Instead of spending her days concerned with household matters, she pursues her interest in painting. Since she has some capital of her own and a small income from painting Edna moves into a house of her own while her husband is away on business. At this time Robert returns, professing his love for Edna and his desire to someday marry her but, again, withdraws before anything improper can happen. Edna, increasingly struggling to cope with societal strictures, returns to Grand Isle where she first experienced her rebirth.

The Awakening is a book that can be read in a number of ways—everything from a künstlerroman to a Creole Bovary to a transcendental fable of the soul's emergence—and there's no reason why they can't co-exist within the same framework but I'm not sure the book deserves to be called a Feminist text simply because its protagonist is a strong-willed woman; she's not particularly interested in rights for women, only freedom for herself. There's no proselytising, no burning of corsets (bras did exist in 1899 but probably weren't commonplace), no wanting to emasculate every man she encounters. She simply wants to be able to do what she wants to do when she wants to do it. In some respects that's a rather immature notion but as regards life's freedoms she is something of a child despite being actually twenty-eight for most of the book, turning twenty-nine at the very end. I don't mean 'childish' in a bad way, simply as a metaphor for innocence and inexperience; like all women of her time her world experiences have been limited to a "women's sphere" cum gilded cage.

Birds crop up throughout the book (see here) beginning with a noisy parrot in the opening chapter but a particularly significant moment occurs when the pianist, Mademoiselle Reisz, puts her arms around Edna and felt her shoulder blades, "to see if [her] wings were strong". When doing this she says:

The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.

I suppose in some respects flying and swimming are related. At the start of the novel Edna learns how to swim and can't get enough of it; there's a childlike delight in the fact she can now propel herself through water unaided. If you're looking for a feminist metaphor here, sure, you can read it that way; she's no longer supported by a man only it's not only men. Chopin notes:

Edna had attempted all summer to learn to swim. She had received instructions from both the men and women; in some instances from the children. Robert had pursued a system of lessons almost daily; and he was nearly at the point of discouragement in realizing the futility of his efforts. A certain ungovernable dread hung about her when in the water, unless there was a hand nearby that might reach out and reassure her.

But that night she was like the little tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who of a sudden realizes its powers, and walks for the first time alone, boldly and with over-confidence. She could have shouted for joy. She did shout for joy, as with a sweeping stroke or two she lifted her body to the surface of the water. [bold mine]

Yes, she's a woman, and, yes, once she gains confidence she does say "[s]he wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before," but one can read too much into that. Her discovering the freedom being able swim affords her is significant though:

She turned her face seaward to gather in an impression of space and solitude, which the vast expanse of water, meeting and melting with the moonlit sky, conveyed to her excited fancy. As she swam she seemed to be reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself.

I'm not sure if this is her epiphany or if that comes later but considering how the book ends—she returns after her testing out her wings to the spot where she learned to swim—it's significance can't be overlooked. Here at Grand Isle, for the first time it seems, she discovered the pleasure of being alone; indeed the book is subtitled 'A Solitary Soul'.

From the 1982 film adaptation The End of August

Five quotes:

"Oh! I don't know. Let me alone; you bother me."

She liked then to wander alone into strange and unfamiliar places.

But after all, a radiant peace settled upon her when she at last found herself alone.

When Edna was at last alone, she breathed a big, genuine sigh of relief.

I want to be let alone. Nobody has any right—except children, perhaps—and even then, it seems to me—or it did seem—"

She doesn't want to be a man—although she's clearly fond of men and men certainly feature in what passes for her plans for the future—nor is she clamouring for a divorce but when she finds herself freed for a time from not only her husband—who's really not a bad sort and far more understanding than the husband in The Yellow Wallpaper­—but also her children—whom she loves dearly but doesn't feel a need to centre her life around—she finds contentment in the simplest of things: painting and reading, visiting her (as opposed to 'the family') friends and not having to oversee a household. At one point she goes to visit the Ratignolles and, on parting, notes:

The little glimpse of domestic harmony which had been offered her gave her no regret, no longing. It was not a condition of life which fitted her, and she could see in it but an appalling and hopeless ennui.

From the 1999 film adaptation Grand Isle

It's important to remember that the book's title is called The Awakening. Edna takes time to wake up to the reality of her life. One of the most significant early moments is when she informs her husband that she's thinking of becoming an artist:

        "I feel like painting," answered Edna. "Perhaps I shan't always feel like it."
         "Then in God's name paint! but don't let the family go to the devil. There's Madame Ratignolle; because she keeps up her music, she doesn't let everything else go to chaos. And she's more of a musician than you are a painter".
         "She isn't a musician, and I'm not a painter. It isn't on account of painting that I let things go."
         "On account of what, then?"
         "Oh! I don't know. Let me alone; you bother me."
        It sometimes entered Mr. Pontellier's mind to wonder if his wife were not growing a little unbalanced mentally. He could see plainly that she was not herself. That is, he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world. [bold mine]

It takes time to awaken. It takes time to become. The realisation may feel sudden but there will have been a journey even if it is only a relatively short one. Edna Pontellier's journey towards self-actualisation takes a year, a little less. As rebirths go it's fairly smooth sailing. She doesn't have to fight for her rights. She tells her husband, no, and he takes it. The first time this happens her husband, Léonce, has come home and finds Edna lolling in a hammock on the porch:

        "Edna, dear, are you not coming in soon?" he asked again, this time fondly, with a note of entreaty.
         "No; I am going to stay out here."
         "This is more than folly," he blurted out. "I can't permit you to stay out there all night. You must come in the house instantly."
        With a writhing motion she settled herself more securely in the hammock. She perceived that her will had blazed up, stubborn and resistant. She could not at that moment have done other than denied and resisted. She wondered if her husband had ever spoken to her like that before, and if she had submitted to his command. Of course she had; she remembered that she had. But she could not realize why or how she should have yielded, feeling as she then did.
         "Léonce, go to bed," she said. "I mean to stay out here. I don't wish to go in, and I don't intend to. Don't speak to me like that again; I shall not answer you.

He doesn't drag her to her feet and give her a good slap. No, instead he draws up the rocker, hoists his slippered feet on the rail and waits out the night with her. He may not understand but he is understanding. And continues to be throughout the whole book.

From the 1999 film adaptation Grand Isle

Of course by today's standards the book is tame and more people nowadays will be offended by the ways coloured people are referred to as blackies, negroes, mulattos, quadroons and, in one instance (and this was a new one on me), a griffe which is, apparently, a person of three-quarter black to one-quarter white ancestry. The last slaves were freed in 1865 so no parallels are drawn between slavery and the role of women apart from one early in the book:

"You are burnt beyond recognition," [he husband] added, looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage. She held up her hands, strong, shapely hands, and surveyed them critically, drawing up her lawn sleeves above the wrists. Looking at them reminded her of her rings, which she had given to her husband before leaving for the beach. She silently reached out to him, and he, understanding, took the rings from his vest pocket and dropped them into her open palm. She slipped them upon her fingers; then clasping her knees, she looked across at Robert and began to laugh. [bold mine]

This doesn't make Léonce a bad man because as we've seen already he clearly cares for his wife's wellbeing. He's also a man of his time and behaves as he sees others behaving. He has a business to run and is (perhaps overly) concerned about how he is perceived in the local community so it's actually to the man's credit that he doesn't rein his wife in.

Tame as the book is by today's standards the book was not well received. In her preface to the Norton critical edition of the novel Margaret Culley writes that The Awakening

…met with widespread hostile criticism and the book was removed from the library shelves in St. Louis. Chopin herself was refused membership in the St. Louis Fine Arts Club because of the novel. In 1906 it was reprinted by Duffield (New York); but then it went out of print and remained so for more than half a century in this country.

To be fair not all reviews were negative. C. L. Deyo in his review wrote:

It is sad and mad and bad, but it is all consummate art. The theme is difficult, but it is handled with cunning craft. The work is more than unusual. It is unique. The integrity of its art is that of well-knit individuality at one with itself, with nothing superfluous to weaken the impression of the perfect whole.

It was very much the exception. The novel "leaves one sick of human nature" complained another critic; "it is not a healthy book" said one more. (See more here.) The public reaction devastated her. In July 1899 she even went as far as publishing a retraction in Book News, a literary journal:

Having a group of people at my disposal, I thought it might be entertaining (to myself) to throw them together and see what would happen. I never dreamed of Mrs Pontellier making such a mess of things and working out her own damnation as she did. If I had had the slightest intimation of such a thing I would have excluded her from the company. But when I found out what she was up to the play was half over and it was then too late.

"She was broken-hearted," her son Felix said, and in the remaining few years of her life (she died in 1904) she produced only a few pieces, half a dozen stories and a few poems. How sincere—or indeed accurate—her retraction is who can tell? Me, I don't buy it. I was only a few pages into the book and I already could see the writing was on the wall; she knew where this story was going from the jump.

I do, however, think the book was misread by many. In 1895 Grant Allen published a novel called The Woman Who Did about a young, self-assured middle-class woman who defies convention as a matter of principle and who is fully prepared to suffer the consequences of her actions which is perhaps why certain reviewers saw The Awakening as part of the "overworked field of sex fiction". Is there sex in the book? Yes, but Fear of Flying it is not; blink and you'll miss it. Kenneth Eble in his essay, states bluntly: "Quite frankly, the book is about sex." It is not. If sex was what Edna was after then she misses a lot of opportunities. She chooses to have extramarital relations twice and that takes up a couple of lines in a book of a hundred and fifty-odd pages. When Robert, the male friend who she met on holiday at the start of the book and whom she falls for in a big way, returns towards the end of the novel (having done the gentlemanly thing and removed himself from the path of temptation) does Edna throw herself as him? No, she says, "I'd rather talk about you, and know what you have been seeing and doing and feeling out there in Mexico." Chopin tells us earlier on that Edna "was almost devoid of coquetry." She's not a flirt. She's not a tease. But she does enjoy the company of men:

There were one or two men whom she observed at the soirée musicale; but she would never have felt moved to any kittenish display to attract their notice—to any feline or feminine wiles to express herself toward them. Their personality attracted her in an agreeable way. Her fancy selected them, and she was glad when a lull in the music gave them an opportunity to meet her and talk with her.

The book's ending, now, that's another thing entirely and very much open to interpretation. My own reading of it is that the symbolism suggests she's overreached herself—or is in imminent danger of doing so—and freedom comes at a price. Also once a caged animal, no matter how well cared for, has tasted freedom there's nothing that would lure it back. I personally don't think Edna does overreach herself; if anything she takes baby steps. I take umbrage on Edna's behalf. It's as much as I can say without revealing the ending but a lot has been written about it and I'm not sure I have a lot to add other than what I've hinted at here.

The thing about Edna, though, is that she's actually a bit of a Romantic and I've never really seen Feminists as Romantics (as opposed to romantic feminists); they're pragmatists, realists, women with their eyes open who see the world for what it is which is why they want to change it. There's a part of me that feels Edna is being indulged and that her husband's going to turn up any day with a short leash and drag her off to the Continent; he's a patient man but even he has his limits. Of course we'll never know because the book ends before his return. What if? What if? What if?

Some books can be read, enjoyed for what they are and forgotten. This is not one of them despite the sad fact that for years it was forgotten. There are layers here and much has been written about it since its rediscovery in the mid-sixties. I've read a fair bit in preparing this article but most of it I can't talk about without saying too much which I've probably already done. The book is dated, without a doubt, but it's more than a historical curiosity. I agree with her grandson in his estimation of the book. In chapter six Chopin writes:

In short, Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her. [bold mine]

Kate-ChopinThat moment comes to us all eventually, the men, the women, the feminists, the romantics, even the deluded and, yes, there are those who think that Edna's kidding herself. Read the book. Think about it. Make your own mind up.

If you are interested in learning more about her then The Kate Chopin International Society's website is a good a place to start as any. As I've said, a lot has been written about this wee book over the years and the web contains a wealth of information from a variety of angles. The following list is a little long but if you're serious about studying the book I've probably saved you a good couple of hours work. You're welcome.


Kate Chopin's The Awakening: Struggle Against Society and Nature

Kate Chopin: A Re-Awakening (PBS documentary, transcript)

Kate Chopin's The Awakening: A Critical Reception

A Catalogue of Symbols in Kate Chopin's The Awakening

Adele Ratignolle: Kate Chopin's Feminist at Home in The Awakening

Kate Chopin as Feminist: Subverting the French Androcentric Influence

A Feminist Analysis of Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin's The Awakening

Deconstructionist and Feminist Analysis of The Awakening

The Bird that Came out of the Cage: A Foucauldian Feminist Approach to Kate Chopin's The Awakening

Out of Place, Out of Time? Reading Kate Chopin through Contemporary French Feminist Theory

Tenuous Feminism and Unorthodox Naturalism: Kate Chopin's Unlikely Literary Victory at the Close of the 19th Century

Feminine Quest for Individuality in Beowulf and Kate Chopin's The Awakening

Reading and Translating Kate Chopin's The Awakening as a Non-Feminist Text

A "Cry of the Dying Century": Kate Chopin, The Awakening and the Women's Cause

Edna's Failure to Find Her Female Role in Kate Chopin's The Awakening

Writing The 'Solitary Soul': Anticipations of Modernism & Negotiations of Gender in Kate Chopin's The Awakening

Gender and Literary Valorization: The Awakening of a Canonical Novel

The Awakening: Female Characters and their Social Roles

Representations of Love and Female Gender Identities in Kate Chopin's The Awakening

The Female Artist in Kate Chopin's The Awakening: Birth and Creativity

The Masculine Sea and the Impossibility of Awakening in Chopin's The Awakening

Edna Pontellier's unwomanly vocation in The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin's The Awakening in the Light of Freud's Structural Model of the Psyche

Dropping Hints and the Power of Foreshadowing in Kate Chopin's The Awakening

Marriage, Motherhood, and Reception in the Fiction of Chopin and Wharton

The Devil in the House: The Awakening of Chopin's Anti-Hero

The Missing Link: Kate Chopin and The Awakening

Too High a Price: Sacrifice and the Double Standard in Kate Chopin's The Awakening

Loss of Self and the Struggle for Individuality in Kate Chopin's The Awakening (need to download PDF)

The Second Coming of Aphrodite: Kate Chopin's Fantasy of Desire

Solitary Blessings: Solitude in the Fiction of Hawthorne, Melville, and Kate Chopin

The Evolution of Kate Chopin's Heroines

The Awakening - Multiple Critical Perspectives (only an extract but looks like an interesting book)

The Awakening and The Yellow Wallpaper: An Intertextual Comparison of the "Conventional" Connotations of Marriage and Propriety

Marriage and Sexuality in Kate Chopin's The Awakening, D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover and Erica Jong's Fear of Flying

The Criticism Surrounding the end of Kate Chopin's The Awakening (only read once you've finished the book)

Death as a Metaphor in The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin's At Fault: The Usefulness of Louisiana French for the Imagination (Not directly about The Awakening but as there's so many French references in the book you might find it of some use)

The Awakening Study Guide (a bit basic but a decent enough overview although I would've thought more would've been said about the French expressions)

Seven years on

Posted: 03 Aug 2014 03:54 AM PDT


6a00d8341c39e853ef0177436c54ea970d-320wiI've been doing this for seven years now. Blogging. That's a long time. There aren't many people who've blogged consistently over that long a time. So allow me a moment to pat myself on the back.


I don't normally celebrate anniversaries. A lot of people do. But my 100th post slipped by without mention and I'm not far off from my 600th which will probably pass without any fuss or comment. That's just me. But I've been thinking for a while about what my expectations were like at the start and what I've achieved since I began devoting so much of my time to online activities and a seven year anniversary is as good as any time to talk about it.

A lot can happen in seven years. Eight years ago I was working myself into the ground and on the brink of a rather nasty nervous breakdown. The only thing in my life was work. And then my life changed forever. I was made redundant and Carrie decided—because I was in no fit state to decide anything—we could afford for me not to go back fulltime and so I never have. It's a wonderful position to be in and I realise that many of you will be thinking Jammy bugger as you read this. Just imagine, the freedom to spend all day every day reading and writing and watching TV because that pretty much is my life. What could you achieve given that amount of leeway?

The thing is that breakdown I had to go through to get me to this point in my life was a doozy and I've never been the same since. I'm better but I'm not the man I used to be. I'm also seven years older for starters, seven years further away from my prime. It's all downhill from here. This doesn't mean I've been idle over the last seven years—far from it—but the legacy of the breakdown is that I'm nowhere near as efficient as I used to be. And I forget stuff. It's not Alzheimer's. I don't think it's Alzheimer's. I went to the Glasgow Memory Clinic a few months back and was tested. I do have what they classify as mild cognitive impairment but my memory isn't so bad that I don't know what day of the week it is or what city I live in. But I do have trouble retaining information—holding three things in my head's a challenge—which makes writing novels tricky.

The solution to that, after giving up on two or three ideas for novels (I really can't remember if it was two or three), was the novella. I've completed two, Exit Interview and In the Beginning was the Word and both are written entirely in dialogue, the novel stripped bare. Other than that the only extended prose writing I've done in the last seven years was to finish my fifth novel, Left, after about a three year break. Poems come when the mood suits them and although I don't write a lot—a dozen in a year is good—I'm happy with the quality and that's what matters. A wee while back I was reading through the hundreds of poems I wrote in my teens and they are SO BAD.

Publishing is another thing completely. Things have changed radically in the last seven years especially since 2009 with the release of the Kindle 2. There had been e-readers before but for some reason—that mysterious 'some reason'—the public started to show a real interest in electronic books and everything went to pot from there. Suddenly everyone and his cat could produce a book and have it out there within an hour or two of completion no matter what state it was in and the market was flooded. Publishing changed overnight and it really hasn't found its feet.

The Internet's also gone through a bit of a shake-up since 2007. Facebook existed back then and it was fairly popular but not like today. Twitter was a mewling infant and Pinterest, or whatever the next big thing's going to be, didn't exist yet. Interest in blogging's also fallen off. People aren't writing blogs like they used to, nor are people reading them, which is a shame because the reason I started this blog in the first place was because that's what the people in the know said an aspiring writer ought to do: start a blog and blog regularly. At my blog's peak I was getting about 10,000 hits in a month. Now we're down to about 4,000 which is still nothing to be sniffed at. Okay I blog a little less than I used to but it's still a heckuva a fall. At least I'm still attracting readers. What I'm not attracting—what I've never attracted—are book buyers. And this was the main reason for starting the blog in the first place. To establish myself. To earn people's respect. And I think I've done that. I hope I've done that. I've certainly worked my butt off trying to do that. There are a handful of people out there who get me. And that's great. The blog's brought me friends some of whom I expect to be friends with until I die. That I didn't expect and was an added bonus. But I did think I'd attract a few more actual readers, the kind of readers who get excited when they learn I've a new book out—it's not as if I'm bring one out every fortnight. Okay, a fan base. I mean a fan base.

This makes me wonder why I'm continuing to blog and not putting my energy into book promotion. Now here's the thing: I don't think the majority of online book promotion works or at least the return on investment is measly. The exceptions are exactly that and we shouldn't start thinking of them as the norm. There will always Making Sense 517 x 800be books like Fifty Shades of Grey and the reasons for their success will remain a complete mystery. There are plenty of sites out there reviewing books—although the standard of reviewing varies widely (don't get me started on the girl who gave Making Sense 2½ stars because she mistook my collection of short stories for a novel)—but even a site like mine where I at least try to do a half-decent review, well, you've seen how many readers I get and that's after seven years of consistently showing up week in and week out so as not to disappoint my readers. But even there, who exactly are my readers? Most of them are writers. Some self-publish or only post new material on their blogs and that's enough for them. A few have published with small presses. One or two have even put out a book or two with a medium-sized press. Not many are just readers. Because just readers don't subscribe to blogs like mine or any of the sites where reviews of my books have appeared except by accident. They wander into Waterstones and pick up the first shiny thing they see. Or spend a few minutes on Amazon seeing if anything catches their eye. But they don't exactly trawl through the millions upon millions of titles looking for the book that no one else is reading because there are hundreds upon hundreds of perfectly readable books out there so they simply go with one of them. Besides who has the time for that?

Most of the books I've read recently—those not send to be from publishers—I've found by chance. I've a review coming up of a book that I really enjoyed. It's from a bloke in Maine and I just stumbled on it, just like that. I wasn't looking for it. I would know where to start looking for it. You can find it in Amazon under Contemporary Fiction, Fiction and Humour. It has three reviews, two five- and one four-star. How was I ever going to find it? I could tell you the title. I could. I could even tell you the author's name; that'd be a help. But that's the problem and I've said it time and time again. The Internet is like a dictionary: it's great as long as you know what you're looking for. I'll post the review in a week or two or three and maybe out of my 4000 readers, one or two, will buy this guy's book. I have no stats to back that up but I'll be surprised if it's many more because we all have too many books to read as it is. I see my books on the to-be-read lists of people in Goodreads but none of them ever get round to buying the book. It's for that reason I don't keep a to-be-read list online because someone will inevitably end up disappointed and the horrible thing, the really horrible thing, is that I'd probably have enjoyed their book more than half of the books I did end up reading and gave preference to simply because they were people I thought I ought to be reading.

This year I set myself the task of reading one hundred books. It's an arbitrary figure and I'm not normally one who sets goals but this year—for one year only as I'm starting to run out of thin books—I'm going to read a hundred books. As I'm writing this I've got five months left and I'm already around the seventy-five mark. So I don't imagine I'm going to have too much trouble hitting my target. I could be doing other things. I have books written that only need a decent edit and they could be out there—my wife thinks there actually `might be a market for In the Beginning was the Word—but I really have lost heart over this last year. Which is why I think I've been content to do the bare minimum to satisfy my commitments—a post here every Sunday (three book reviews to one article), two shortish posts for McVoices on the first and third Wednesdays of the month and a five hundred word review of a poetry book for Elsewhere whenever Rob gets round to sending me something)—and that's it. I've not been doing much promotion. I've not even been sending out stories and poems. The result was a second novella and I have an idea for a third but that's all I'm saying on that count. Because I've allowed myself space to be bored. I've written about boredom at length here. Its importance to creative types cannot be exaggerated.

Reader (border)Everything will get published eventually. I have a book of poems that needs a bit of ordering and weeding but after popping into Tell it Slant a few weeks back and discovering all three copies of This Is Not About What You Think that I donated to help Ellen when she was starting up still sitting on a shelf and looking like they'd never been handled, well, that didn't exactly do much to boost my enthusiasm. The next collection—which will be entitled Reader Please Supply Meaning—is a book of poems about poetry and we all know how popular they are so we'll do a small run so I have copies for my friends to stick on their shelves and then I'll maybe start thinking about editing my novel The More Things Change which I had planned to work on this year but that never happened.

I don't like to moan (who am I kidding? I love to moan) but everyone needs a bit of a moan every now and then. It changes nothing. Moany posts tend to get a few more comments than most—others encouraging you not to give up—and they're all sincere and well-meant and if you fancy spending two minutes offering a fellow writer a bit of solidarity then go for it. It won't hurt.


As for the next seven years… Well, who knows? I'm running out of ideas for articles. I've enough to last to the end of the year and you never know I might get inspired but I've really added most of what I have to add. The same old subjects crop up again and again on sites like mine—is the novel dead? what is poetry? does the Oxford comma matter?—and mostly these are all questions where the answers aren't important. What is poetry? Poetry's what I write. I recognise it the moment the words hit the page. I have no need to define it. I just want to write more of the damn stuff. I likewise don't care how many angels can perch on the head of a needle. Idiotic question!

I'll keep reviewing books for now. I enjoy reviewing books. I pay more attention to a book when I know I have to talk about it and I get more out of it because of that. But I now realise that this is not the place to promote my books. I'll mention when there's a new one but I don't know about you but I hate those author sites where all they go on about is their book, their one book, their only book as if it's the only book in the goddamn world: Read my book. Read my book. Read my soddin' book. Buddy: no one's going to read your book. Or as near to no one as doesn't make a whole lot of difference. Not enough difference to get yourself in a tizzy. So stop getting yourself in a state and focus all that energy on something else. Write another book. Go for a walk. Something. My sales this year probably amount to something like 0.0000000273% of the total books sold in the UK, probably less, and so, seriously, if I sold ten times or a hundred times more than I'm selling right now no one's going to notice the ripples; it'll still round down to zero. Puts things in perspective. I'm doing better than Van Gogh did during his lifetime, let's put it that way.

My wife and I sat and watched an interview with Anita Desai a couple of weeks back. It was a good, long one. During the interview she talked about what life used to be like in India for natives writing in English. No one was even remotely interested. Following independence de-anglicisation became a matter of national pride. What were these writers thinking hanging onto a dead colonial language? Still they amounted to a handful of writers and you know the size of India. What harm could they do? Only from 1980—yes, that recently—when Midnight's Children came out did Indian publishers there lift their heads up and go, "Eh?" Maybe there were a few rupees to be earned here after all. Change came quickly after that. Who knows what will happen in the next thirty years? I may still be around then. I'm not planning on it but anything after seventy-five is a bonus as far as I'm concerned and maybe by then publishing in the twenty-first century will've got its act together. I can wait. Books don't go out of date. People treat them as if they do—such a stupid mentality—but most (satire and celebrity bios excepted) don't; we just start thinking of them as historical fiction.

I never expected to—and I use the term loosely—"make it" quickly, or at all really, but it was disappointing to see the goalposts move. Now I'm not even sure what game we're playing as people keep making up the rules as they go. There are lots of people out there offering advice (for a price) but the only real answer is: Write what people want to read. And if you're unwilling to or incapable of doing that then just be grateful for the odd sale that comes your way. It was better in the gold ol' days when writers wrote and that's pretty much all they were expected to do apart from maybe sign a few books and there were only about six genres.

Lastly I should just like to say thank you to those who have hung on with me through the last seven years. I doubt any are still around from the very start but I can think of a couple who appeared pretty close to it. But even if it's just been a year, a month or a week I'm still glad you're here. And if this happens to be the very first post of mine you've read then please feel free to dip into my back catalogue. There's some good stuff there. If I say so myself.

The Appointment

Posted: 27 Jul 2014 05:22 AM PDT

the appointment herta muller

[T]here's nothing to think about, because I myself am nothing, apart from being summoned. - Herta Müller, The Appointment

After Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize in 2009 I, I imagine like a number of others, went out and tracked down a copy of one of her books to see what the fuss was all about. Like many Nobel laureates I'd never heard of her before and felt bad about that. The book I ended up reading was The Passport which I reviewed here. In my article I included the following quote:

A year after my departure from Romania in 1987, Jenny came to visit in Berlin. Since the time of the harassments in the factory she had been my closest friend. Even after I had been sacked we saw each other almost daily. But when I saw her passport in our Berlin kitchen, and in it additional visas for France and Greece, I said to her face: "You don't get a passport like that for nothing, what have you done to get it." Her answer: "The secret service has sent me, and I absolutely wanted to see you again." Jenny had cancer – she is long dead. She told me that her task was to investigate our flat and our daily habits. When we get up and go to bed, where we do our shopping and what we buy. On her return, she promised, she would only pass on what had been agreed between us. She lived with us, wanted to stay for a month. With each day my distrust grew. After just a couple of days I rummaged through her suitcase and found the telephone number of the Romanian consulate and a copy of our door key. After that I lived with the suspicion that in all probability she had been spying on me from the beginning, her friendship being a task. – Herta Müller, 'Securitate in all but name',, 31st August 2009

The second novel I ended up reading really explores this situation. When I read that paragraph I was reminded of the bit in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four where Smith runs into his old neighbour Parsons who's also been arrested and charged with thoughtcrime:

'Who denounced you?' said Winston. 'It was my little daughter,' said Parsons with a sort of doleful pride. 'She listened at the keyhole. Heard what I was saying, and nipped off to the patrols the very next day. Pretty smart for a nipper of seven, eh? I don't bear her any grudge for it. In fact I'm proud of her. It shows I brought her up in the right spirit, anyway.'

1984I read Nineteen Eighty-Four about forty years ago. The actual 1984 came and went about ten years later without much consequence. Little did I realise that while I was devouring that book a not too dissimilar state existed in the country of Romania. Although Ceaușescu had been head of state since 1965 he'd merely been first among equals on the State Council. In 1974, however, Ceaușescu converted his post of president of the State Council to a full-fledged executive presidency. He also appointed and dismissed the president of the Supreme Court and the prosecutor general whenever the legislature wasn't in session. In practice, from 1974 onward Ceaușescu frequently ruled by decree. Ceaușescu presided over the most pervasive cult of personality within the Eastern Bloc inspired by the personality cult surrounding North Korea's ruling family, the Kims. Initially, the cult of personality was only focused on Ceaușescu himself; however, by the early 1980s, his wife Elena was also a focus of the cult even to the extent that she got credit for scientific achievements which she could never have accomplished.

Like Big Brother Ceaușescu was obsessively concerned about how he was perceived:

Ceaușescu was greatly concerned about his public image. Nearly all official photographs of him showed him in his early 40s. Romanian state television was under strict orders to portray him in the best possible light. Additionally, producers had to take great care to make sure that Ceaușescu's height—he was 1.65m (5-foot 5 inches) tall—was never emphasized on screen. Consequences for breaking these rules were severe; one producer showed footage of Ceaușescu blinking and stuttering, and was banned for three months. – Wikipedia

This is the world in which The Appointment is set. Of course Ceaușescu is never mentioned. It's not even clear that the city in the novel is Timișoara, that is to say, the capital of the multi-ethnic region of the Banat in which Müller was born. It doesn't matter. The book's power is that it could be set in any police state. The narrator, a nameless factory seamstress, has been caught slipping marriage proposals into the back pockets of suit trousers bound for export. (Interestingly I didn't realise she was nameless until I started comparing other reviews and someone mentioned it.) For this she has been arraigned on a charge of prostitution, though anything is better than a life in a communist sweatshop "cutting, stitching, finishing, ironing and knowing all the time you're not worthy of the final product". It's not her children who've denounced her but a fellow employee, her supervisor, Nelu:

When I was confronted about the notes, he denied having informed on me. Anyone can deny things. It was just after I had separated from my first husband; white linen suits were being packed up for Italy. After we went on a ten-day business trip together, Nelu expected to keep on sleeping with me. But I'd made up my mind to marry a Westerner, and I slipped the same note into ten back pockets: Marry me, ti aspetto, signed with my name and address. The first Italian who replied would be accepted.

At the meeting, which I was not allowed to attend, my notes were judged to be prostitution in the workplace. Lilli told me Nelu had argued for treason, but had failed to convince them. Since I wasn't a Party member and since it was my first offense, they decided to give me a chance to mend my ways. I wasn't fired, which was a defeat for Nelu. The man in charge of ideological affairs personally delivered two written reprimands to my office. I had to sign the original for the records, the copy remained on my desk.

I'll frame it, I said.

But it doesn't end there:

[T]hree notes later found in trousers destined for Sweden read: Best wishes from the dictatorship. The notes were just like mine, but I didn't write them. I was fired.

Where we first meet her is on her way to her appointment with Major Albu of the secret police. She's not been arrested but every few days she has to travel to be interrogated by him whenever called. The book opens:

I've been summoned. Thursday, at ten sharp.

Lately I'm being summoned more and more often: ten sharp on Tuesday, ten sharp on Saturday, on Wednesday, Monday. As if years were a week, I'm amazed that winter comes so close on the heels of late summer.


[T]oday I'm carrying a small towel, a toothbrush, and some toothpaste in my handbag. And no handkerchief, since I'm determined not to cry. Paul didn't realize how terrified I was that today Albu might take me down to the cell below his office. I didn't bring it up. If that happens, he'll find out soon enough.

Herta-MuellerWhen reading this I assigned no great significance to the handkerchief but after reading her Nobel acceptance speech I realise that handkerchiefs are a significant emblem in Müller's life and maybe more can be read into this simple statement.

While travelling her thoughts shift back and forth and gradually a picture builds up of what her life has been like over the past few years and not only her life but that of her parents and grandparents, too, going back to the 1950's; a brief recent history of Romania then. And an at times a quite surreal portrait it is, too. It's no wonder Müller's been compared to Kafka. "The trick is not to go mad." So the book ends. A hard call all things considered.

The narrator of The Appointment is a watcher. All writers are although she's never described as a writer. But she is a watcher in a country full of watchers. She lives with Paul, an alcoholic, who she met selling illegal aerials. A car sits outside their flat. They assume it's the Securitate.

For a whole week, when summer came and people began running around in short sleeves, Paul and I were suspicious of a man who to this day walks over from the shops every morning at ten to eight, empty-handed. Every day he steps off the paved sidewalk and follows the paths around the dumpsters and then steps back on the sidewalk and returns to the shops. At one point Paul couldn't stand it any longer, he stuffed some paper in a plastic bag and set out to follow the man.

It's an oppressive life. Her neighbour, Herr Micu, has been summoned, too, and ordered to record her movements:

The elevator came and the door opened. It was empty, but Herr Micu stuck his head inside as if to double-check whether someone wasn't standing on the ceiling. He wedged his foot against the door.

I waited to catch you because I had no idea when you come and when you go. I have to write it down.

I could see the last mailbox on the wall reflected in one of his eyes, or was that just his pupil turning white and square. I didn't compare it with his other eye, because he whispered:

I've already filled two school notebooks, I have to buy them myself.

Feeling bad she buys him a notebook but it turns out its too big so she uses it herself "to record whatever Albu says to me while kissing my hand, or how many paving stones, fence slats, telegraph poles, or windows there are between one spot and another. I don't like writing, because something that's written down can be discovered, but I have to do it."

As she travels she remembers her father, a bus driver who carried on an affair with a vegetable seller, "the woman with the braid" as she calls her; her friend Lilli, who was shot dead on the border while trying to flee with her lover, a sixty-six-year-old retired army officer; her ex-husband, who nearly threw her off a bridge when he found out she wanted to leave him and her lover Paul, whom she first met at the flea market while trying to get a fair price for her wedding ring. She remembers a boy she knew as a girl who died and she remembers, too, her former father-in-law, a man she refers to as "the Perfumed Commissar," who dispatched her grandparents to a forced labour camp while sitting astride the same white horse he rode when he confiscated the property of others and, of course, how could she forget her fling with Nelu while on a visit to "Button Central" the largest button factory in the country?

Part of a recurring pattern in the book concerns older men who sleep with young women. Lilli is especially prone:

Lilli had loved a hotel porter, a doctor, a dealer in leather goods, a photographer. Old men, to my way of thinking, at least twenty years older than she was. She didn't call any of them old. She'd say:

He isn't exactly young.

This list doesn't include her stepfather who she seduces:

Even a child has secrets, Lilli said to me, and I wasn't a child anymore. I put the loaf down on the kitchen table and pulled my dress over my head as if it were a handkerchief. That's how it all started. It went on for over two years, nearly every day except Sundays, and always in a rush, always in the kitchen, we never touched the beds. He'd send my mother to the shop, sometimes there'd be a long line, sometimes a short one, she never caught us.

In a totalitarian states there's not much comfort to be had. People drink and have sex. Herr Micu once says to Paul:

Every time we have sex it's a spoonful of sugar for her shattered nerves, the only thing I can use to keep my wife from taking leave of her senses.

Her senses, Paul asked.

Her senses, I said taking leave of her senses, I'm not saying I can restore her mind.

A particularly sad scene plays out when our narrator—in a naïve attempt to take the place of "the woman with the braid"—tries to seduce her own father.

There is a wonderful paragraph that reminded me of Pozzo's speech from Waiting for Godot, the one where he talks about giving birth astride the grave:

You go out for a walk and the world opens up for you. And before you've even stretched your legs properly, it closes shut. From here to there it's all just the farty sputter of a lantern. And they call that having lived. It's not worth the bother of putting on your shoes.

I don't think Beckett would've been too displeased if he'd written that himself.

One adjective that crops up all the time in reviews of Müller's writing—including this book—is 'difficult'—the reviewer in The New York Times said The Appointment was "more a test of endurance than a pleasure"—and whereas it's true to say I've picked up books that are easier to read, once you get into Müller's rhythm this is a fairly straightforward text. She could've made life easier for her readers by indicating where the flashbacks where because suddenly I'd find myself back on the tram and I'd go, Eh? Also, and I really don't know why writers think this is cool thing to do, she doesn't used quotation marks nor—and this is the real puzzler (never come across this one before)—question marks. What harm has the poor question mark ever done anyone? Some of her run-on sentences were a bit unnecessary too; my English teacher would've had a field day if I'd submitted stories punctuated like these. These are quirks and although they're mildly annoying, as I've said, once you get used to them they're no big deal.

'Surrealist', 'magic realist' and 'fable-like' were all expressions that've been used to describe The Passport but there's not much of that here. Some of the writing can be a bit poetic at times as her mind wanders but I wouldn't say there's even a lot of that. A nice example though is:

When she dried herself she became like the towel, when she cleared the dishes she became like the table, and she became like the chair when she sat down.

The basic storyline is conveyed in easy-to-read—albeit badly- unconventionally-punctuated—prose.

The ending is odd and unexpected. Because of a ruckus on the tram she doesn't get dropped off at the police headquarters; the tram driver insists on dropping everyone off at the next designated stop. Because of this she has to rush and there's a very good chance that she'll be late. But because of this she sees someone she didn't expect to see. And if her world wasn't in enough turmoil, frozen in that moment she realises she's going to be late for the first time. If she even goes now. Why not head home and simply await Albu there, him or his henchmen? People can continue to resist as long as they have a good enough reason. When that reason is cast in doubt why go on?

Native RealmIn Native Realm, Czesław Miłosz writes: "Terror is not, as Western intellectuals imagine, monumental; it is abject, it has a furtive glance, it destroys the fabric of human society and changes the relationships of millions of individuals into channels for blackmail." What is madness? In simple terms I suppose it's a willingness to accept the unbelievable, that—to hark back to Orwell again—two plus two might actually equal five. Winston accepts that. At least he shows a willingness to accept that. She believes there are four possible ways for life to play out: "The first and the best: don't get summoned and don't go mad, like most people." The second is to not get summoned but lose your mind anyway like Herr Micu's wife. The third is to get summoned and go mad. The fourth is to get summoned but not go mad. "The trick is not to go mad." So says the unnamed narrator on the final page of this novel but is that the last sane thing she's ever going to say?

You find, in Herta Müller's prose, no epic line, no plot with beginning and end. If the world is ambiguous and opaque, literature must cease to provide a deceptive overview of it. She has said that only fictional surprise allows us to approach reality. She scissors out bits of experience to subsequently amalgamate them, and she has also used collage as a method to write poetry. – Presentation Speech by Professor Anders Olsson, Member of the Swedish Academy, 10 December 2009.

There is nothing epic in a ninety minute tram ride. There is nothing heroic in getting from one day to the next. Winston Smith was not a hero. The woman is this novel is not a heroine. The world only ever gives birth to a handful of heroes at a time. The rest of us muddle through. It's hardly worth putting on our shoes.

Not everyone will enjoy this book. I've read some reviews that've only given it one star and others who, although they appreciate the quality of the writing, have got lost somewhere along the line. One said of the ending, "Is her ambiguity incredibly bold or am I incredibly dense?" 108 gave it five stars on Goodreads: Pamela writes, "The Appointment is probably one of the most moving books I have read in the last 5 years, and I log a few books a week..." and Ruth says, "This is a book that will haunt me." Me, I was touched by it. It lacks the power of Nineteen Eighty-Four—it's a more intimate book—but in its own quiet way it begs to be remembered.

You can read an excerpt from the book here.

Smut: Two Unseemly Stories

Posted: 20 Jul 2014 03:43 AM PDT

Smut Bennett

"... How much better ... how much healthier ... had all these persons, these family members, been more candid with one another right from the start. – Alan Bennett, Smut

Sex is a part of life, in fact without sex there'd be no life. I'm less curious about it than I used to be but I still find I can be distracted from what I'm doing when some salacious news item passes my way. Little actually shocks me. It just underlines how narrow my own life experiences have been and how poorly I understand people. I'm as puzzled by people who practice auto-erotic asphyxia as I am by people who listen to opera for pleasure. I don't get any of them. I've tried listening to opera to see if I could develop a taste for it and've pretty much given that up as a bad job, but having been an asthmatic all my life I can conceive of no earthy pleasure at all in not being able to breathe so, no, I've not tried to strangle myself nor anyone else.

There is a single truth that holds true for all people: their parents had sex. If only the once. My wife just said, "What about in cases of artificial insemination?" to which I answered, "Well, at least the fella had sex." "Children always assume the sexual lives of their parents come to a grinding halt at their conception," so wrote Alan Bennett. We don't like to think about our parents having sex which is odd because we, usually, are quite happy to have sex ourselves. Every generation thinks they invented sex or if not exactly invented it—given the fact their parents somehow managed it—they've been the ones to master it. I actually think the thing with our parents is more to do with old people having sex as opposed to just our parents but I might be wrong.


"People shouldn't think I'm cosy"

alan-bennett-1Appearances can be deceiving. I suppose that's where the notion of seemliness comes from. People aren't interested in how things are, only how they seem. Alan Bennett never wrote Keeping up Appearances—despite the fact it features one of his favourite actresses—but he could have. Or, maybe not. It was actually written by fellow-Yorkshireman Roy Clarke. Bennett's characters are generally more rooted in reality; Clarke's tend to be more caricatured. There's definitely common ground there, though. Many of Bennett's characters are unfortunate, downtrodden and not a little sad. Life has dragged them to an impasse or else passed them by. In many cases they've met with disappointment in the realm of sex and intimate relationships, largely through tentativeness and an inability to connect with others. Michael Frayn has noted that a lot of his work is about that moment when people wake up to the fact that they have passionate feelings and Bennett writes about these people with such compassion it's hard not to feel something for even the traitors Anthony Blunt (A Question of Attribution) and Guy Burgess (An Englishman Abroad).

Having remained unwed well into middle age it was generally assumed Bennett was gay although he never said yea or nay for many years. When pressed once at an Aids benefit back in the eighties to confirm whether he was gay or what, Bennett told the actor Ian McKellan: "That's a bit like asking a man crawling across the Sahara whether he would prefer Perrier or Malvern water." The fact is he is… ish—he's lived with magazine editor Rupert Thomas for years—but it's never as simple as that because he also had a long time relationship with Anne Davies, his former housekeeper; he's on record as saying fell in love with her within a fortnight of the meeting and their relationship continued until her death in 2009. In an article in The Independent, Billy Kenber writes:

The playwright, who packs his works with autobiographical references, told Radio 4's Front Row programme last week: "If there was any sex going, you'd go for it, but it didn't really matter which side it was on. There'd been something of both in my life, but not enough of either."

Davies once said: "He was always gay, but he thought men didn't like him. It's like not being picked for the team at school. I was the only woman he'd ever been close to. I was like an earthquake, turning his life upside-down, with my kids and lovers and mess."

Needless to say the national press got its knickers in a right twist over that revelation but, as Bennett himself noted in his diary, "All you need to do if you want the nation's press camped on your doorstep is to say you once had a wank in 1947." (Anyone who doubts the veracity of that claim that read this.) I mention this because for some reason people tend not to associate that nice man Alan Bennett with sex. He's a national treasure after all—along with the likes of the Attenborough brothers, Stephen Fry and Judi Dench—and these people can do no wrong. I'm not suggesting that Bennett has done anything wrong—people with a stricter set of moral values than mine please feel free to disagree—his lifestyle choices are his own but I mention the above to remind everyone that long before he became a national treasure he was just a bloke from Leeds looking for love, like most of us, in all the wrong places.

Sex crops up in Alan Bennett's writing with surprising (appalling?) regularity. Even his famous Talking Heads are far from free of it: Susan, in A Bed Among the Lentils, has an affair with an Asian grocer; Lesley, in Her Big Chance finds herself cast in a soft-core porn film; Miss Fozzard, in Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet, Alan and Thoraventures into benign prostitution; Rosemary's friend, on whom she develops a crush, in Nights in the Garden of Spain, kills her husband after years of ritual sexual abuse and, I expect the hardest one for most people to watch, Wilfred, in Playing Sandwiches, is a paedophile struggling—and, ultimately, failing—to keep on the straight and narrow. We prefer to remember Thora Hird's two captivating performances in A Cream Cracker under the Settee and Waiting for the Telegram or Patricia Routledge in A Lady of Letters or even Bennett himself in A Chip in the Sugar.

Certainly sex is a subject that he finds himself talking about more and more:

He says there is nothing he would hesitate to write about, if he chose. "Not now. I think once upon a time I would have. I just wouldn't have wanted people to know too much about me. But I am so old it makes no difference now, does it? I have been around so long. And I also think people don't care now in quite the same way." Does this account for the increased amount of sex in his writing? "Maybe so. People think it is to do with me. I think it is to do with the times as much as anything else. Or maybe one is just running out of things to say." – Sarah Crompton, 'Alan Bennett, interview: "people shouldn't think I'm cosy"', The Telegraph, 30 November 2012

In describing Bennett's book Smut one of the reviewers on Amazon said this: "A 'nice' book about sex—only Alan Bennett could've done it!" It really hits the nail on the head, doesn't it? He's a bit like Morgan Freeman that way only in Bennett's case he doesn't even have to do the talking. As long as it's his words then everything's somehow more palatable, nicer. If you were going to your doctor to find out if you had cancer he's the person you'd want sitting opposite you. I find it impossible to read anything by him or watch anything written by him without certain expectations and he always, always delivers because, with Bennett, it's the journey that matters, not clever plotting or witty punch lines (although he's perfectly capable of both).

Smut is comprised of a novella, The Greening of Mrs Donaldson and a novelette, The Shielding of Mrs Forbes although Bennett describes them as "long short stories". They're set in the present but there's something slightly old-fashioned about both of them. Few are so awkward these days as to insist people use their honorific but there are places where it would feel more appropriate than others, a court of law for instance or a doctor's office. I'm not exactly an old man but it does still rankle me when people I don't know call me 'James' (especially telesales callers); they should say, "Do you mind if I call you 'James'?" and let me grant them permission—"It's 'Jim', actually".

Smut is an old-fashioned word. It's the kind of word my mother would've used: "We'll 'ave none o' that smutty talk in 'ere." (Remember my mother was a Lancashire lass.) It's an objection I see raised now and then against Bennett and, to be fair, he is and always was (Larkin was the same, nostalgic before his time) but that's his universe and I'm happy to buy into it—even if the word Bennettesque doesn't exactly trip off the tongue—in just the same way as I accept the unrealities of P G Wodehouse's or E F Benson's worlds; it's a part of their charm.


The Greening of Mrs Donaldson

Mrs Donaldson is fifty-five and recently widowed. She lives alone in a house that's now too big—but more relevantly whose upkeep is now too much—for her and so, after staying "at home for weeks on end, a process Gwen, her married daughter, was pleased to dignify as 'grieving'," she's found it necessary to supplement her income with a part-time job at the local medical school. To aid students in honing their diagnostic skills the management have hired a group of "Simulated Patients, as they were officially designated" to pretend they're suffering from various ailments:

No special skills were said to be required, only the ability to memorise information and present it clearly. Nothing was said in the advert about acting ability or Mrs Donaldson would not have applied; self-confidence wasn't mentioned either, which would have been another deterrent as Mrs Donaldson had always thought of herself as shy.


'I don't even see it as acting,' she told her friend Delia in the canteen, 'just a case of keeping a straight face. It's a way of not being yourself.'

Delia was another member of the medical troupe.

'It's just nice to be looked at,' said Delia, 'even as a specimen. How often do young people ever look at you? At our age we're invisible.'

As it happens Mrs Donaldson excels and becomes something of a favourite of Dr Ballantyne, the head of the unit; she has a talent for improvisation.

'Ballantyne obviously fancies you,' said Delia when they were talking in the canteen afterwards. And when Mrs Donaldson pulled a face, 'You could do a lot worse.'


'You've lost your husband, he's lost his wife. A son in Botswana apparently and the daughter's married an optician. He's probably lonely.'

As Time Goes ByOkay, I know what you're thinking. This is shaping up to be another As Time Goes By—I'm quite sure Geoffrey Palmer would made an excellent Dr Ballantyne to Judy Dench's Mrs Donaldson—but that's not the main thrust of this story. No. The job's fine but the income is not and so Miss Donaldson decides to take in lodgers. Needless to say Gwen does not approve:

'The first condom in the loo,' she said to her husband, 'and she'll soon change her tune.'

As things go Mrs Donaldson is lucky:

[T]he two students sent to her by the university lodgings syndicate were in every respect but one not to be faulted. They were neat, quiet and they cleaned the bath and flashed the toilet and were so altogether discreet Mrs Donaldson scarcely knew they were in the house. Laura was a medical student and Andy, her boyfriend, was doing architecture.

Their one fault? They're both regularly behind with the rent.

To be fair, the children, as Mrs Donaldson thought of them, were not unconcerned about their own fecklessness.

They assure her that they'll be able to "work something out." What precisely this might mean Mrs Donaldson gives no thought to. "They owed her money. It ought to be paid." Once four weeks' rent is overdue the lodgers broach the subject again.

'We talked it over in bed last night,' said Laura, 'and it occurred to me that having seen you down at the hospital demonstrating we wondered if you would like it if. . .'

"We put on a demonstration for you,' said Andy. 'In lieu.'

Being about ages with Mrs Donaldson I have to confess that if there's one expression I find myself struggling to grasp it's, "It's just sex." It's never been just sex with me. I've always regarded sex as something significant, something involving an emotional connection. That the goodnight kiss has turned into the goodnight bonk, well, that's something I simply can't get my head around.

"Have you ever seen anyone making love?" said Laura.

"To tell you the truth," said Mrs Donaldson pretending to cast her mind back, "I don't think I have."

"Oh good," said Laura. "We were bothered it might not be much of a novelty."

"Oh no," said Mrs Donaldson, "it would. It would."

Though given the choice she still wasn't sure she might have preferred marigolds.

Not wanting to appear ungrateful Mrs Donaldson acquiesces. Then follows probably the least-titillating—although far funnier—sex scene since "Adam knew Eve his wife" (Gen 4:1). Of course there are consequences but that's as far as I'm going here.


The Shielding of Mrs Forbes

Having read a lot of online reviews of this book—especially the one-and two-star reviews—I can see one objection to this particular story was its lack of realism. Here's what Bennett said in interview:

I wrote a play called Habeas Corpus and it's a bit in that style. It's a farce and not a realistic story

The protagonist in this story isn't actually a Mrs Forbes; it's the rather handsome (and rather gay) Graham Forbes who, as the story unfurls, we learn is contemplating marriage to a slightly older and less good looking woman going by the name of Betty—a name for some unknown reason his mother looks down on—who will, in due course, become the titular 'Mrs Forbes' and it takes no stretch of the imagination to conceive what she might need shielding from but one shouldn't rush to any conclusions, not just yet. Why, in this so-called enlightened age, would Graham feel the need to do such a thing? I'll come back to that.

The real stars of this piece, however, are his parents and were this ever turned into a play—which, indeed, it might have been as Bennett has admitted that often his short stories started off as ideas for plays that didn't quite cut the mustard—I could see numerous venerable actors and actresses queuing up to play Mr and Mrs Forbes Sr. A typical exchange:

'I suppose . . .' mused Mr Forbes.

'You suppose what?'

'I suppose they've . . . had it off.'

'I beg your pardon?'

'Done it. Got his leg over.'

There was a pained silence. It was an ancient battleground . . . what she called it, what he called it and whether he was allowed to call it anything at all.

'I suppose you mean "made love". Because I prefer not to think of it.'

'She's probably,' said Mr Forbes, warming to the fray, 'a bit of a goer.'

'A goer? Edward. When are you going to learn that there are certain phrases you cannot use?'

'I heard Graham use it.'

'Graham is different. Graham is young, attractive and drives a sports car. He has a life with the top down and language to match. He can say "gay" and "bird" and "cool", all the things young people say. You can't. I heard you say "tits" the other night at the Maynards'. You're too old to say "tits"'.

'What age is that? When is the cut-off point? How old does one have to be still to say tit?'

'It's not a question of age. Some people can say it all their lives. Whereas you, you've never had enough dash.'

Don't worry, Edward gets his own back when, during a dance with his wife at the wedding, he whispers obscenities into her ear and there's nothing she can do about it, not that he doesn't pay for it later.

So, yes, the wedding goes ahead. They both have their reasons. His is money. Betty is not short of a bob or two although the fact is Graham has no idea how wealthy and his wife has every intention of keeping it that way. She's not daft—far, far from it:

She wasn't wholly infatuated, though she liked the way he looked; but, so did he and that unfatuated her a bit. Still, she could be forgiven for thinking that her money entitled her to someone out of her own league.

Surprisingly the marriage is more of a success than either of them might've had a right to expect. Sex with his bride proves less of a chore than he imagined not that she succeeds in converting him and, as an occasional treat, he does go back to his old ways which is where he meets Gary or Trevor (actually Kevin) who might've been a lorry driver when he wasn't being an interior decorator when he wasn't being a rent boy when he wasn't being a cop when he wasn't being a blackmailer. No one is every quite what they seem but then neither was Betty who, although not entirely dissatisfied by Graham's efforts in the bedroom, was not so satisfied that she had no time for a little bit on the side with, of all people, Graham's dad which makes one wonder whether the 'Mrs Forbes' of the title might not actually be Graham's mum rather than his wife. Of course there's no reason it couldn't be both.

The thing about protecting our loved ones is they usually need far less shielding than we imagine; women never have been the delicate flowers we like to paint them as and it turns to Betty to extricate her husband from the pickle he's got himself into without playing all her cards if she can avoid it.


The bottom line

These two tales are big on dialogue, light on action and contain virtually no descriptions; people are described by their actions rather than their physical appearances. Neither is an especially serious or profound piece, although, now I think about it, that's Bennett doing what Bennett does best, making the indigestible somehow not only palatable but actually pleasant. With the sole exception of the blackmailer there are no bad people here and as far as bad people go the blackmailer is in a league with those criminals from days of yore, dressed a bit like Frenchmen with bags with the word 'swag' written on them slung over their shoulders. There's always the possibility that things are going to get serious but what's the worst that could happen if Mrs Donaldson and Graham are outed? Actually both are but because this is the 21st century those who do learn of their shenanigans treat them the way they ought to be treated and see no reason to embarrass either of them; all they've done is cope the best way they could.

Both stories are told in the third person. For most writers that means an anonymous omniscient narrator but such is the weight of Bennett's personality that never for a moment did I imagine that anyone else was telling these stories other than Bennett himself. Jackanory excepted, can you ever imagine sitting watching someone reading you a story on the telly? The radio, yes, but the telly? And yet there are hours and hours of Bennett doing just that. Or if not him then one of his proxies. So when he slips in expressions like ''the little woman'' or ''your good lady'' that's Bennett talking and I don't see that we should criticise him for that. Yes, his use of tense wanders—something I'm terribly guilty of so I'm not going to be picky—but, again, I prefer to treat the slips—if, indeed, they are slips (Charles Moore in The Telegraph thinks they are; Benedict Nightingale in The New York Times is more charitable)—as Bennett slipping through which is why there are three instances at least where he, to use a theatrical term, breaks the fourth wall and addresses us directly; the opening quote is one of those instances. Let me be explicit: we are not reading these stories; Alan Bennett is telling us these stories.

If the stories are a little cold—and they are—this is wholly due to Bennett's characteristic delivery which can be a bit deadpan at times, a legacy of his Yorkshire upbringing. He is a reserved storyteller and so anyone looking for graphic depictions of acts of sexual congress will be sadly disappointed. Just as incontinence is called ''a little accident'' so direct, honest descriptions of who is doing what to whom are non-existent. Smut is a good title for this pairing—you can't really call two stories a collection, can you?—because it's a euphemistic expression and I can think of so many of these that my parents would've used like "women's troubles" or "waterworks". We don't need everything spelled out. All I need to think of is my dad trying to tell someone the plot of Lady Chatterley's Lover and the voice in this book makes complete sense to me.

Picador coverIs this Bennett at his best? Probably not but he's another one like Woody Allen: even a 'bad' Woody Allen film is better than most people's others and the same goes for Alan Bennett. Unlike some stories I've read of late the stories don't hinge on the surprises and much pleasure can be gleaned from subsequent rereading. The satire's not biting but it's still there, nibbling away at our preconceptions and showing us just how farcical life can still be.

One last word: kudos to Picador for incorporating some of Christopher Silas Neal's great "cupping" sketch ideas into their cover. Very clever and so appropriate. The Faber and Faber edition—the one I read—with its keyhole cover felt a bit flat after seeing it, although I did like it's size, a bit smaller than your standard paperback.

Rue End Street

Posted: 16 Jul 2014 05:58 AM PDT

Rue End Street
I've had enough of grown-ups lying or not telling me the truth. I'm twelve years old. I can milk cows, for heaven's sake. – Sue Reid Sexton, Rue End Street


Sequels are a tricky business. It's easy to see their appeal, both from an author's perspective and a reader's, but they're fraught with dangers. With a standalone novel there's little basis for expectations, whatever the blurb says and we all know how misleading blurbs can be. You might wonder if the book might go this way and that—especially if, as the case here, it's a work of historical fiction—but that's about it. Sue's first novel was Mavis's Shoe—you can read my review here—which dealt with the Clydebank Blitz as seen through the eyes of nine-year-old girl called Lenny Gillespie. Of course there're people still alive who lived through these events—in some respects they're the book's target audience (well, primary audience)—and so the first job Sue was faced with was getting her facts straight because there's nothing a reader of historical novels loves more than being able to say, "Oh, no, the door was actually olive green, not pine green." I'm sure they do it unconsciously but they do do it.

I went to the Clydebank book release event on Wednesday 25th of June and it was interesting hearing Sue talk about how much research went into this book—she talked to survivors and visited places—and it's impossible not to admire the dedication that these authors put into trying at least to get their facts straight. Not that she's obsessive about it. In one of the endnotes to Rue End Street Sue mentions the paper mill at Overton:
The paper mill … actually closed in 1929 and the buildings were partially destroyed in 1939. I was working from an older map and did not discover this fact until that part of the book was written. It was so spectacular a spot for such an important moment, as visitors to Loch Thom will know, that it just had to stay in.
And I agree with her although to my mind the particular encounter that takes place there was so intimate that it could've happened anywhere; everything disappears around them; it's just the two people involved. But this is me jumping way ahead of myself.

Mavis Shoe[4]Sue says she'd no plans to write a sequel to Mavis's Shoe but people wanted more and so she started to wonder what might satisfy them. Because she would now be writing for an audience with genuine expectations and in many cases a real fondness for the characters involved. I was quite touched at the reading when Sue apologised for having to kill off Mr Tait at the start of the book because it was clear that some in the audience had developed a soft spot for the character, but as she said, "He had to go." Of course he didn't have to go—the guy could've lapsed into a coma and woken up at the end of the book—but I'd probably have killed him off too. Cleaner.

The big question—and one she clearly wrestled with for some time—was what to do with Lenny. Sue's solution was an intriguing one, partly obvious, partly inspired. Whereas in the first book Lenny's searching for her sister, in the sequel we have her searching for her dad. Because that's what people really want from a sequel: the same but different. Only as the book progresses what she ends up searching for is not so much her dad but the truth about her dad. It turns out her dad was not the man she thought he was but then who's dad is? There comes a point in every kid's life—and about twelve is as good an age as any (that's exactly when it happened to me)—when the scales fall off your eyes and you become aware that your dad's merely a man with faults and flaws:
I pictured Mr Tait in his brown suit standing there with me admiring the view and what he'd say. 'Your dad's your dad,' he'd say, 'whatever kind of man he is.'
Mr Tait may be "D-E-A-D dead" but he's not gone. Not by a long chalk. He's a constant source of encouragement and strength to Lenny as she heads off in her search for the truth. Of course he's only a voice in her head but his importance as a character can't be overstated. Everyone uses him as a touchstone. Even in death he's still a key figure.

So, how to start the ball rolling? In the opening chapter Mr Tait's ill. In fact he's dying. Lenny is in attendance and he calls her over:
        'Lenny,' whispered Mr Tait.
         'Yes, Mr Tait.'
        He raised a hand from his lap to indicate I should come closer.
        Ordinarily I love the batter of the rain on the roof and the wind whipping the corners of our home, because it's home and it's cosy inside and we're all in there together, but that day it was so stormy, and with the wind roaring through the trees around us, I couldn't hear a word Mr Tait was saying. His voice was always soft and gentle but somehow you could always hear it no matter what. That afternoon he was so weak I couldn't make anything out at all, so I put my finger in one ear and the other ear right up close to his mouth and waited. I felt his breath on my neck and the dryness of his lips brushed against my ears like autumn leaves. These were things I hadn't felt before because Mr Tait was never one to show affection by touching. He'd only to call me 'my dear' and then I'd know he was the best friend I could ever have.
         'My dear,' he whispered, and then he coughed again and I had to get out of the way. He sounded like little farthings rattling in a collection box [farthings were still legal tender until 1960], and when he'd finished he was like the wheeze of the fire. He waited a moment, then gave a little nod to indicate I should put my ear back up close. I was scared, I don't mind saying so, but I always did what Mr Tait told me, usually. I heard him say 'don't touch' and 'cup' and 'keep girls away' and 'mum back' and 'Barney'. Then he sighed and I could hear his breathing like the fire again. After a minute he went on. 'Your dad,' he said, and 'not far' and 'find' and 'under bed'. This surprised me because no-one hardly ever talked about my dad. My dad was a complete no-no as far as conversation was concerned. Although we didn't know where he was and everyone thought he was 'missing presumed dead.' I was absolutely certain he wasn't under the bed.
She does, however, look later, just to be sure, although not seriously and that's the last Mr Tait ever says to her. We learn he's been suffering from TB and pneumonia and dies shortly afterwards which leaves the family with a few problems, the whereabouts of Lenny's dad being the least of them. As the mother's income is starting to dry up this means the family has to move back to Clydebank but Lenny, being Lenny, decides school can wait and tries to find work so she can help out but the inevitable happens and one day she comes home to find everyone's moved and she's expected to pack up her own stuff and follow; a note with their new address has been left. Lenny, being Lenny (which is an expression that could preface practically any sentence about the girl) has her own plans and top of her list is: Find Dad.

As far as she'd aware her dad—also called Lenny Gillespie (at least that's what she'd always believed)—was a soldier and off fighting the Nazis in some foreign country. But she learns quickly that's not the case. He had been to war but on June 10th 1940 everything changed. That was the date the Italians entered the war and allied themselves with Germany. So what's that got to do with Lenny's dad? Well, quite a lot: she suddenly gets it into her head that her dad might be an Italian or at least have been mistaken for an Italian. But how was that possible? He came from Hull? Overnight all Italians resident in the UK—including those fighting in the armed forces—are declared enemy aliens and potential fifth columnists. Thousands were arrested and shipped off to internment camps. In England most went to the Isle of Man but in Scotland—fortuitously for Sue's book—three of the camps were reasonably close to Clydebank: Blairvadoch Camp, Rhu, Helensburgh, Stuckenduff Camp, Shanden, Helensburgh and there was a third at Whistlefield. (You can read an interesting article about them here.) This is where Lenny believes her dad is and so sets off to find him, not quite sure why she needs to find him but hoping against hope that in doing so she's find the answer to her family's problems. If she'd thought things through she'd have realised the folly of her course of action but she's twelve (and she's Lenny) and so off she goes half-cocked.

One of the reasons Sue was drawn to write her first book was that so little was known about the bombing of Clydebank. London and Coventry were still alive in the public consciousness but poor old Clydebank was in danger of being forgotten. Another historical fact—and one that people are more than happy to forget—is how the foreign nationals were treated during the war so this was a most worthwhile subject for a novel.

At its heart Rue End Street is plotted as a mystery novel with all the necessary coincidences, contrivances and conveniences in place to get the hero where she needs to be albeit usually by an unnecessarily convoluted route. This is the book's Loose_lips_might_sink_shipsweakness although to be fair this is the weakness of all mystery novels. A typical example is the going by the matchbook trope. Lenny needs information and assistance and she invariably gets what she needs when she needs it. To Sue's credit not everyone the girl encounters is helpful—this is wartime and sharing information, even with twelve-year-old girls, is frowned upon (Loose lips sink ships)—but, for my tastes, things still come a little too easily to her. Most readers won't notice or care because it's necessary for her to get where she's going and as long as what or who assists her could have happened—it's not as if Mr Tait appears to her in a dream and provides map coordinates or anything—then they're willing to buy into it. Also it was a different time and even now Scots are—at least in the Greater Glasgow area—friendly, helpful and non-judgemental. So when Lenny's trying to cross the Clyde without the requisite pass—not enough to have a ticket back then—for an adult who she's never met before to step up and pretend to be a relative isn't such a stretch.

Like most mystery novels this is also a quest and if Sue had decided to pitch this book to kids or young adults then a title like The Quest for Lenny's Dad would've been a perfect title. Having a twelve-year-old narrate does create its own problems because obviously Lenny has limited insight and life experience. She doesn't, for example, realise that she's starting to be attracted to boys "in that way" and although she has some ideas about sex she's far more innocent than any twelve-year-old would be today. So there are times when this feels like a book aimed for older children and young adults—although Sue, during the Q+A that followed her reading said that wasn't the case—and, as such, I found the book a lighter read than I prefer; I read the 421 pages over three days and didn't feel I was stretching myself. It reminded me of books like Reinhardt Jung's Dreaming in Black and White and Jerry Spinelli's Milkweed, books specifically aimed at a younger audience but that doesn't mean that older readers—and I'm thinking especially of readers who remember World War II and probably aren't big readers—won't enjoy it. It was obvious from the audience reaction at the reading—which was clearly a larger turnout that they'd been expecting and extra seats were needed—that a number had fallen in love with Lenny on reading Mavis's Shoe

Which leads me to the question: Do I have to read Mavis's Shoe first? I would say, yes. Sue does do her best to bring us up to speed but really she's just reminding those who've read the first book of the important details and not providing a detailed backstory for newbies. You could read it on its own and it would work but—and, of course, there's no way I can tell because I have read Mavis's Shoe—I don't think it stands as well on its own as the first book did. This isn't a criticism, merely an observation. I'm sure many people who came to Mavis's Shoe were interested in the Clydebank Blitz. Those who continue will do so less because of the book's historical setting and more because Lenny's impressed herself on them. She's a compelling protagonist and it's not hard to root for her.

Of course you hope she's going to find her dad. But it's the truth—or, to be honest, the truths—about her dad that are uncovered along the way that raise the standard of this book; the more Lenny finds out as she follows the clues the more she starts to wonder about the man she's looking for and if she even wants to find him.

I'm sure there will be those who want to know what happens to Lenny next and I've no doubt that if she were to find herself in another novel by Sue Reid Sexton it would be fun to see what happens to her. Personally I'd rather see this as the end to her story. The two books form a nice arc. Quit while you're ahead. That would be my advice.

One interesting point: Rue End Street was simultaneously published in Braille. You can read more about that on the Royal Blind website.

Sue Reid Sexton
Sue Reid Sexton is a writer of fiction, including novels, short stories and poetry. She was also a psychotherapist and counsellor for ten years, specialising in trauma, and before that she was a social worker in homelessness and mental health for another ten years. Now she dedicates herself to writing fiction and is an active member of Scottish PEN.

She's interested in the use of writing for health, as a way of understanding the self, for exploring experience, for sustaining identity and enabling the coming to terms with change. This is in addition to creative writing as art. She's also interested in working with all groups but in particular those who might use groups or writing workshops for those reasons (and many more).
Further reading

Italians in Britain
The internment of an Italian from Glasgow
POW Camp Summary WWII (Scottish camps only)
Anti-Italian Riots (an extract from the book The Internment of Aliens in Twentieth Century Britain)


Posted: 06 Jul 2014 04:40 AM PDT


Very deep. You should send that in to the Reader's Digest. They've got a page for people like you. ― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

One of the last things my first wife said to me before she walked out the door was, "You know, you're not deep. You think you are but you're not." That hurt me more than her leaving me. To this day, some thirty years later, it still stings. The fact is she was right—I wasn't nearly as deep as I thought I was (what twenty-odd-year-old is?)—but I was (and continue to be) terribly interested in deep things. What exactly 'depth' is, though, is not an easy thing to define. It isn't the same as complex or difficult. It can be couched in the simplest of language even—merely look at the parables of Jesus or the haiku of Bashō—but it usually takes you to places where language struggles and as much as I love words and endeavour to translate everything into words, I am, nevertheless, painfully aware of their limitations. That was in September 1982. A few weeks before the breakup—prophetically, one might say— I wrote this poem:


One day he tried too hard and broke it.
He patched it up
and it still worked,
though not as well.

The wheels still went round.
No one noticed any change
till one day it fell to pieces
and they all wondered why.

27 June 1982

Is it deep? Who knows? I'm pretty sure by that time I'd stopped sharing my writing anyway. Twelve years later I had another woman in my life for whom I wrote this


(for Jeanette)

Love is a straight line –
it gets right to the heart of things.

Love squared is expansive –
it covers a multitude of sins.

heartLove to the power of three is deep –
it takes time to explore.

Give me your hand
and don't be afraid.

12 June 1994

There are many kinds of love. Reducing any one of them to four letters only does it a disservice. Is it deep? It aspires to be because it aims to take the reader beyond the words on the page. That said if you're fourteen and never been in love can you possibly hope to get it? I'm fifty-four and still not sure I understand love but I can measure its effects on me and others. I didn't love my first wife. I thought I did but the truth was I lusted after her and once sex stopped being enough we both could see what little there was holding us together. Clearly not enough.

Jumping forward twenty-three years:


As a child
          I knew I knew everything.
No one believed me
          and over time I
          forgot most of it.

When a man
I thought I knew many things.
          I knew of many things
          and I believed
          the things I knew were mine.

Now, of course,
          I've grown old and it is clear
          to me I knew nothing.
It is the one
          thing that I know for sure.

Two plus two
10207328-blackboard-with-2-2-4-written-on-it          is not mine, nor the capital
          of Venezuela,
          nor the reasons
          I'm all alone tonight.

02 October 2007

I wasn't alone when I wrote it—poetic licence—but it makes its point well enough. It was important for me to be considered deep when I was twenty. Not so much now although I still enjoy wallowing in the depths of another's imagination.

There is a test for intellectual depth. I found it here. My result was:

Your Functional Intelligence Score... 66

Needless to say I take the result with a pinch of salt.

There's an interesting conversation over on TED. The topic under discussion is: Is everyone capable of deep intellectual thought? A few selected comments:

Ann Chovie: Everyone is capable of abstract thinking, but I don't believe that everyone is an adept abstract thinker capable of carrying out the "deep intellectual thought" that you are referring to. In the same way that some people are highly proficient at retaining information while others are less so, some people are better at understanding and synthesising abstract ideas. Everyone has the ability to memorise information, but some people are more proficient at it than others. One student may spend a week memorising the material for an exam, while another may only spend one day retaining that same amount of information.


Synthesising a new idea is one thing, but to articulate that idea in a coherent and succinct manner is a challenge within itself, and is essential to demonstrating that you have the ability to think abstractly in the first place.

Gisela McKay: Deep thinking requires not only the mental faculty, but also the curiosity and drive to understand.

Dan Goddard: This opinion does not preclude intelligent people—as many of the people I know who are like this are quite intelligent, but they do not have the patience for introspection nor to spend time to think deeper than how to solve the next challenge with shallow shot-gun blast of suggestions that will possibly hit the mark. We are each born with our own disposition, thought processes, and communication patterns. People born with this disposition are not deep thinkers with respect to the aforementioned assumption of what "deep thought" means here.


I believe that not all people are capable of "deep thought" as understood by (as an assumption) most people reading this thread. Why I believe this is because, "deep thought" in this context requires observation, consideration, introspection and time in thought. I have known many people incapable of prolonged introspection – most of the information that flows through their lives, flows in an outward direction, diluted in accuracy and potency by whatever multiple the original input was multiplied by.

My brother's never been a deep thinker. He doesn't like grey areas—he said this to me once in so many words—which is why he returned to the religion we were brought up in following a not atypical bout of losing his way as a young man. He likes the black-and-whiteness of that particular faith: this is right; that is wrong; end of story. He doesn't question things whereas I question everything. Articulating the answers I come up with is the real challenge. Framing questions is always so much easier: Is there a God? Is there life after death? What is love? My mother's answers would've been: Yes; It depends and Read 1 Corinthians 13:4-8. She was also not a deep thinker. My dad tried but he wasn't a clever man and so struggled to express his conclusions at times but, especially in later life, he would sit alone and in silence for hours on end just pondering.

A caveman could think about the sun all day long and get nowhere. Nowadays school kids know all about the sun, even the not very bright ones, but that doesn't make them deep thinkers, not by a long chalk. Besides what they don't know they can easily google.

Thanks to science and technology, access to factual knowledge of all kinds is rising exponentially while dropping in unit cost. It is destined to become global and democratic. Soon it will be available everywhere on television and computer screens. What then? The answer is clear: synthesis. We are drowning in information, while starving for drowning_in_information_thumb_200x9999wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.

And this much about wisdom: In the long haul, civilized nations have come to judge one culture against another by a moral sense of the needs and aspirations of humanity as a whole. In thus globalizing the tribe, they attempt to formulate humankind's noblest and most enduring goals. The most important questions in this endeavour for the liberal arts are the meaning and purpose of all our idiosyncratic frenetic activity: What are we, Where do we come from, How shall we decide where to go? Why the toil, yearning, honesty, aesthetics, exaltation, love, hate, deceit, brilliance, hubris, humility, shame, and stupidity that collectively define our species? Theology, which long claimed the subject for itself, has done badly. […] Western philosophy offers no promising substitute. – E.O. Wilson, Consilience, The Unity of Knowledge, p.294 (bold mine)

Before I became a writer I was a thinker and I'd like to think I was a deep thinker even if I wasn't always a deep person. The writing is a means to an end. It's a record of my thought processes, the poetry especially. When I pick up my big red folder and flick though the hundreds of poems within it I can trace those thought processes over decades. I don't pretend to be a wise man but I am an intelligent one and one who's interested in things. Not everything—no one has the time to take an interest in everything—and so I specialise, but not to an extreme; the creative mind needs to draw on all kinds of random stuff; truly deep thought requires a certain amount of breadth. Words, in particular, especially fascinate me.

Take 'consilience'. Consilience is an interesting word:

In science and history, consilience (also convergence of evidence or concordance of evidence) refers to the principle that evidence from independent, unrelated sources can "converge" to strong conclusions. That is, when multiple sources of evidence are in agreement, the conclusion can be very strong even when none of the individual sources of evidence are very strong on their own. Most established scientific knowledge is supported by a convergence of evidence: if not, the evidence is comparatively weak, and there will not likely be a strong scientific consensus. – Wikipedia

This makes total sense to me as a writer particularly when I look back on the various sources of ideas that find expression in a single work, especially a novel. The principle of consilience is based on the unity of knowledge thesis:

Even though, for example, physics and politics are distinct disciplines, the thesis of the unity of science says that in principle they must be part of a unified intellectual endeavour, science. The unity of science thesis is usually associated with the view of levels of organization in nature, where physics is the most basic, chemistry the level above physics, biology above chemistry, sociology above biology, and so forth. Further, cells, organisms, and cultures are all biological, but they represent three different levels of biological organization. – Wikipedia

Knowledge is a stepping stone: it builds on information and leads through understanding to insight and wisdom. Everything is connected... if only via Kevin Bacon.

GoveApparently back in 2010 Education Secretary Michael Gove spoke of his desire to see "a revival of the art of deep thought". He was talking about the government's plans for A-Levels—"fewer modules and more exams"—but he never really explained what he meant by the "deep thought" although I suspect he was hoping to see pupils leaving schools—pupils who had understood what they'd learned and not simply excelled at remembering and regurgitating facts; merely getting good grades should not be seen as the end purpose of eleven or twelve years of schooling. In his article commenting on what Gove said—and what he might have meant— Julian Baggini writes:

Intellectual nostalgia is no less perniciously revisionist than the other varieties. Deep thought requires reinvention, not revival. To the noble traditions of slow thought, we need to add the best the fast-paced information age can offer. We need to balance breadth and depth, so that what is valued is the volume of wisdom in the lake, not just its reach at its deepest point. To do this we must look forwards, backwards and sideways.

Of course now we have another term to mull over: slow thought.

On Ladislaus Horatius makes an important point:

We care about (or at least talk a lot about) quality of food, water and air. Thoughts contain just as much life, vitality, bacteria and poisons as water. From the seeds of thought our lives are born. They are the bricks with which we build our world. Thoughts need to be treated with care.

And on

The Slow Thought Movement is a peaceful revolution in the way we think. It is about stepping away from the borrowed, second-hand thinking of our times and moving towards original, first-hand thinking.

Slow Thought is thought that comes directly from you.

It comes straight from the realm of your own experience.

Slow Thought embodies a conscious renunciation of borrowed ideas.

Slow Thinkers spend most of their time, if not all, in the realm of experience. When asked how they feel, Slow Thinkers don't speculate about it. They jump right into their feelings and let their experiences do the talking for them.

Slow Thinking gives greater importance to the phenomena and far less to the content of one's thoughts. That is why Slow Thought is open to the wisdom of the unconscious mind. Slow Thinkers recognize that what you think you know is often irrelevant. Your conscious is nothing more than the tip of the iceberg.

Since there's nothing new under the sun I'm not sure we can get by without borrowed ideas but we can adapt them, use them as a jumping-off point: we wouldn't have the cog if no one first invented the wheel.

I think all writers should be slow thinkers. I know there are plenty who aren't; in fact this article sprang from a comment I made on a friend's site in response to his confession that he wasn't a deep thinker. I think he's deeper than he gives himself credit for, but he's also a very different writer to me. He's a storyteller and I don't mean that in a pejorative sense but that is what he does and that's what many writers do. Robert Louis Stevenson, who lived the last four years of his life in Samoa, was apparently honoured with the title Tusitala (Tusitala is the Polynesian word for storyteller) and no one would suggest that he's not a great writer and that his stories don't have depth so it's perfectly feasible to do both. I'm not, however, a storyteller. One of my rules of writing is: A story doesn't need a plot but it does need a point. In some stories the point comes at the end, e.g. the moral in an Aesop's fables—but not always. At some point in the process of reading you'll hit a bit—maybe the scene early on in The Great Gatsby where Gatsby is caught looking out at the green light—and connect with it. In all my novels there's been such a moment when I've suddenly realised what I was writing about. The role of the unconscious in writing should never be sniffed at. All he does is think. He does most of your thinking for you. If anyone is the deep thinker he is. While your conscious mind is distracted steering your car, or fiddling in your tax return, or trying to get to second base with some girl, he's sifting through all the tons and tons of raw data trying to make connections.

Thinking,_Fast_and_SlowThere is a danger though. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman

…presents our thinking process as consisting of two systems. System 1 (Thinking Fast) is unconscious, intuitive and effort-free. System 2 (Thinking Slow) is conscious, uses deductive reasoning and is an awful lot of work. System 2 likes to think it is in charge but it's really the irrepressible System 1 that runs the show. There is simply too much going on in our lives for System 2 to analyse everything. System 2 has to pick its moments with care; it is "lazy" out of necessity. – William Easterly, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Financial Times, 5 November 2011

As you can see his definitions differ from the ones above. The danger of what Kahneman describes as Thinking Fast is that the brain has a tendency to jump to obvious conclusions. Anyone who's sat a word association test will testify to that. But not always and this is why we need the conscious mind to pounce, like any good psychologist would, on the unexpected associations. That can happen very quickly. I can get an idea and have a poem written, printed out and ready to hand to my wife for her stamp of approval in five minutes BUT—and it's an important 'but'—that's just the writing down bit. Writing should not be confused with transcription. Converting all the stuff into your head into words is the easy bit. The slow cooking of ideas can have been going on for years. I get writing ideas constantly, dozens every day. I only bite rarely. They're writing prompts, plain and simple. I know a lot of people online like the idea of prompts but, personally, I don't do my best work when I sit down to work on the wrong thing at the wrong time and that's how I feel about most prompts. But then a friend writes a blog to say he's got terminal cancer and suddenly I have a poem drafted, and not a bad poem it turned out to be, whereas the one I tried to write when another friend's mother died is still unfinished and I may never be happy with it.

Here's another Polynesian word for you: po. I found it in an article on, well, 'po' actually which I found from a list in Wikipedia of thought processes:

A "po" is an idea which moves thinking forward to a new place from where new ideas or solutions may be found. The term was created by Edward de Bono as part of a lateral thinking technique to suggest forward movement, that is, making a statement and seeing where it leads to. It is an extraction from words such as hypothesis, suppose, possible and poetry, all of which indicate forward movement and contain the syllable "po." Po can be taken to refer to any of the following: provoking operation, provocative operation or provocation operation. Also, in ancient Polynesian and Maori, the word "po" refers to the original chaotic state of formlessness, from which evolution occurred. Edward de Bono argues that this context as well applies to the term. – Wikipedia

Of course the word 'po'—in both cases—is a manmade expression. I'm not big on neologisms in my poetry but I can see why some writers might be attracted to them. Every word was new once upon a time. When I think of po I think of 'possible'. (Actually I hear Muskie Muskrat going, "It's's possible.") A poet's brain never says, "No." Give it two ideas no matter how far apart and it will—as in the Kevin Bacon game—try to find a connection:

As beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table. – Comte de Lautréamont AKA Isidore Lucien Ducasse

You see how it works. Who wudda thunk that when I mentioned Kevin Bacon earlier or found that Polynesian word that I'd be able to connect them later in the text? I'm not saying it's deep but it's what happens when we write. All the stuff churns up in our head and connections we never imagined start to appear. And sometimes; sometimes we astound ourselves with the sense we make. There are poems I can look at and I marvel at what I've written. Where the hell did that insight come from?

It's now 2014, thirty-two years since my first wife left me and I do have to wonder: Am … I … deep? I'm older. I'm better read. I'm more experienced. I've made a helluva lot more mistakes. But am I deep? I look into myself and what do I see? Let me leave you with one final poem:


He took his time –
like walking the plank –
and once he found that

he had reached the
end of feeling he
stood and peered into

the abyss whilst
something in the dark
stared straight back at him.

Then in the dim
distance he noticed –
what could it be now? –

an island!
fly because they think
they can and belief

dark-mouthis a very
powerful force. So
without a second

thought or even
a backwards glance he
leapt into the void.

The something in
the abyss gasped or
yawned or it might have

simply opened
its mouth and waited.

11 February 2013

Deep? Right?

The Book of Unknown Americans

Posted: 29 Jun 2014 03:50 AM PDT

Unknown Americans

I don't need anyone's pity. My life has been what it has been. It's not a wonderful story, but it's mine. – Cristina Henríquez, The Book of Unknown Americans

How to tell a story: Well, you begin at the beginning and work your way towards the end. Easy. Few stories, however, are as straightforward as they first appear. On the surface The Book of Unknown Americans tells a simple enough story: Arturo Rivera relocates his family from Mexico to the United States so his fifteen-year-old daughter, who sustained a brain injury whilst helping him out on his construction site, can go to a special school.

We had been planning our life here for so long. Filling out papers, hoping, praying, waiting. We had all of our dreams pinned on this place, but the pin was thin and delicate and it was too soon to tell whether it was stronger than it looked or whether, in the end, it wasn't going to hold much of anything at all.

When they arrive in Delaware (where Cristina Henríquez was born) the girl, Maribel, meets Mayor Toro whose family is from Panama and are well-settled in the States now and it's love at first sight. Of course the course of true love never runs smoothly and so as life throws obstacle after obstacle in front of them the big question is: Will they beat the odds? It has all the makings of a fairly decent YA novel and, indeed, this is a book that will appeal to a wide age range but it's better than that. In an interview Cristina talks about the origins of the book:

The novel actually started as a short story told from Mayor's point of view. Mayor is an outsider in some ways—the kids at school tease him for being a nerd and for being a Pan, which is their slur for Panamanian (and which was the slur used against me when I was in high school); he's uncoordinated, which makes him a disappointment to his father, who has dreams of him being a soccer star; he only has one real friend; he's never been with a girl. I thought it would be interesting to pair him with a someone, Maribel, who is an outsider in her own ways, ways very different from his. She's new to the United States, she doesn't speak English, and … she has recently suffered a brain injury, which has completely removed her from any normal teenage experience. What might two people like that find in each other? What might they give each other? The fact that it's a first love for both of them only ups the ante—Mayor feels with absolute conviction that he would do anything for Maribel, but when he does attempt a grand gesture, it's terribly misguided. The consequences of that gesture alter the fates of all the characters.

What makes the book rise head and shoulders above most love stories is the storytelling because rather than opt for your bog-standard omniscient narrator Cristina has two first-person narrators: Mayor and Alma, Maribel's mother and so we get to see events from two separate (and very different) perspectives which is unusual and takes a little getting used to at first because you expect the narrative to move chronologically from chapter to chapter and it doesn't always; sometimes we step back and relive events from the other person's point of view. But here's the clever bit: every third chapter the narration is handed over to someone else completely. In chapter 3 it's Rafael Toro; in chapter 6, Benny Quinto; chapter 9, Gustavo Milhojas; chapter 12, Quisqueya Solís; chapter 18, Nelia Zafón; chapter 24, Micho Alvarez and finally the last word goes to Arturo Rivera himself. This gives the novel the feel of a documentary. The 'camera' shifts and they each get a few pages to tell their story before we go back to our love story. It's a novel and refreshing way of providing us with the bigger picture. And it works. It's like having half a dozen short stories interspersed throughout the novel. Clever and effective.

I have to wonder what The Book of Unknown Brits would read like. We know—mainly from TV dramas—that in America most of the low-paid jobs go to ethnic minorities. Most New York City taxi drivers, for example, are Indian, Middle Eastern or African these days; if they decided to remake Taxi it would be a very different show. In Scotland 96% of the population is white. In the USA the non-Hispanic White percentage was 63% in 2012 and non-Hispanic Whites are the still the majority in forty-six states; Hawaii, New Mexico, California, Texas, and the District of Columbia are, however, the exceptions. These five jurisdictions have "minority majorities", i.e. minority groups are the majority populations. As a kid I was only ever aware of two ethnic minorities, the Chinese and the Indians (who all worked in restaurants) and that was it. I was a teenager before I met my first black man and even he wasn't especially black. Now things are changing. The number of foreign-born citizens working in the UK has increased from 2.9 million in 1993 to more than 6 million in 2012.

There was a significant jump in the number of foreign-born workers in the UK during 2006, which coincides with the opening of UK labour markets to workers from the A8 countries … in mid-2004. – Dr Cinzia Rienzo, 'Migrants in the UK Market: An Overview', The Migration Observatory, 28 September 2013

flukys-polish-sausageI wonder how different their stories would be to the ones in Cristina's book. Probably not very. I've included these details about the UK because I imagine this book is far more relevant to us here than it ever has been before. Instead of Mexicans we have Poles, instead of Venezuelans we have Romanians, instead of Puerto Ricans we have Estonians, instead of Guatemalans we have Latvians, instead of Nicaraguans we have Bulgarians, instead of Columbians we have Hungarians, instead of Panamanians we have Slovakians, and instead of Paraguayans we have Czechs. What do we know of any of these cultures? Oh, we have new weird-looking sausages in Tesco—must try those.

Of course we're not bigoted—being bigoted is bad—but we are ignorant. There's a scene in The Book of Unknown Americans that really hits the nail on the head:

        We rode the bus to midnight Mass with the Riveras, although Enrique sat all the way in the back, plugged in to his iPod, so it was basically like he wasn't even there. The bus driver tuned the radio to the all-Christmas-music station, and when "Feliz Navidad" came on, I guess since we were the only people on the bus, he raised the volume and shouted back at us, "Here you go! A little piece of home for you!"
        Under his breath, my dad said, "Every year the same thing. If it's in Spanish, it's a piece of home. Well, I never heard this song until I came to the United States."
         "And every year, you complain," my mom said.
         "You like this song?"
         "It's like how everyone thinks I like tacos. We don't even eat tacos in Panamá!" my dad said.
         "That's right. We eat chicken and rice," my mom said.
         "And seafood. Corvina as fresh as God makes it."

'Feliz Navidad' is a Christmas song written in 1970 by the Puerto Rican singer-songwriter José Feliciano. Oh, wait, I know José Feliciano but how many other Puerto Ricans can you name? It's like Nelia Zafón says:

Rita MorenoThe world already had its Rita Moreno, I guess, and there was only room for one Boricua at a time. That's how it works. Americans can handle one person from anywhere. They had Desi Arnaz from Cuba. And Tin-Tan from México. And Rita Moreno from Puerto Rico. But as soon as there are too many of us, they throw up their hands. No, no, no! We were only just curious. We are not actually interested in you people.

I guess José Feliciano took over after Rita Moreno retired. I suppose Ricky Martin will be up next.

This is a surprisingly-optimistic novel. I didn't expect it to be. I thought it would be all about oppression and prejudice and, yes, there's some of that here but since the story is told entirely from the point of view of immigrants it's flavoured by their world view. This line jumped out at me:

Maybe it's the instinct of every immigrant, born of necessity or of longing: Someplace else will be better than here. And the condition: if only I can get to that place.

Are all immigrants inveterate optimists at heart? It would seem so if this book is to be believed and I found that a little hard to swallow. It smacked a little of propaganda. In every community there's always someone who's going to let the side down and yet I didn't see anyone here who wasn't fundamentally law-abiding, decent and hardworking which, I agree, most people are. Like Nelia Zafón. This is how her story begins:

I am Boricua loud and proud, born and raised in Puerto Rico until I told my mami in 1964, the year I turned seventeen, that I wanted to live in New York City and dance on Broadway. My mami put up one hell of a fight. You are only seventeen! You don't have any money! ¡Estás más perdido que un juey bizco! All of that. But I had a dream that I was going to be the next Rita Moreno. I was going to be a star. I told my mami, You can look for me in the movies! And I left.

Needless to say her dreams don't come true, at least not the ones she had when she was seventeen:

I worked like crazy. I practiced dancing until my feet bled and my knees felt like water balloons. I rubbed Vicks into my cracked heels and took so many hot baths I lost count. I went to a voice coach and sang until my throat was raw. I killed myself, but it never happened for me.


But I'm a fighter. You get me against the ropes and I will swing so hard—bam! So I thought, well, if I'm not going to find it, then there's only one other option: I will create it.

She decides to go it alone, to set up her own theatre company. Hence the move from New York: "taxes for new businesses were lowest in Delaware".

Now, twenty years later, I still run the Parish Theatre. We do just one production a week. I act in them sometimes, but the real pleasure for me now is giving roles to other actors, watching them perform, especially the young ones.


A few months ago I met a man who came to the theatre. He's younger than me, a gringo, an attorney, so young and handsome. ¡Cielos! We have almost nothing in common, but somehow we're a good fit with each other. He makes me laugh. How can I explain it? He has a spirit. I'm fifty-three years old with wrinkles on my hands. I've never been married in my life, and now this. You never know what life will bring. Dios sabe lo que hace. But that's what makes it so exciting, no? That's what keeps me going. The possibility.

This is typical of the attitude of everyone in the book. They don't want something for nothing. They're willing to work even if that work involves being on their feet for ten hours at a time picking mushrooms out of dirt in a dark warehouse (which is what Arturo ends up doing). Benny Quinto flips burgers. Gustavo Milhojas has two jobs, cleaning bathrooms and movie theatres. Rafael Toro is a line cook at a diner until her loses it and ends up delivering papers in the mornings. José Mercado was a navy man but now his eyes are bad and his wife has to read to him.

These are people like you and me. Impossible for a Scot like me not to recall the words of Robert Burns:

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an' a' that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a' that!
For a' that, an' a' that.
Our toils obscure an' a' that,
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
The Man's the gowd for a' that.

No one in this novel is rich; they all live in honest poverty doing the jobs no one else wants to do. And the same goes for the immigrant workers in the UK. But we're not comfortable with them. As Micho Alvarez says:

We're the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they've been told they're supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we're not that bad, maybe even that we're a lot like them. And who would they hate then?

Micho is a Mexican. The Mexicans look down on Guatemalans; they believe they're stupid. I wonder who the Guatemalans look down on. (Apparently Spanish-speaking Guatemalans look down on the indigenous Mayan population. Thank you Google.)

The story of Mayor and Maribel is sweet. They're both likeable characters, especially Maribel as she struggles to find herself again. We never learn exactly what's wrong with her—doctors rarely know—but she's was quite a character before the accident and it's nice to see that character begin to reassert itself. Mayor's a bit of an innocent which is perhaps why he's attracted to Maribel in the first place and he's as awkward as any sixteen-year-old boy I've known. They're both well fleshed-out; in fact there's hardly anyone in the book—anyone of the immigrants that is—who's doesn't spring to life off the page. What the book is not, however, is a soapbox. You don't feel as if every character is a thinly-veiled Cristina Henríquez thumping on her tub. In this interview she addressed the issue:

It would be naïve of me to say I wrote a book just about immigrants and there's nothing political about it. As has been pointed out to me in the past, it's political to have the last name that I have. There's nothing that's not political.

But I wasn't trying to take a stance one way or another, and I hopefully wasn't betraying my own political opinions about immigration. The characters weren't like a mouthpiece in any way, though. I really wanted to fictionalize it, imagine their lives and tell the human stories.

Someone asked me recently why I write fiction, and why I wrote this story as fiction. Why not just write a political treatise about what I really do think? Part of it has to do with the reception that it will get from readers. If you put something out there that's overtly political and didactic, it turns so many people off. But to say that this is a love story, and a story about parents who are protecting their daughter — it's so many things, but it also happens to be about the lives of immigrants. I think that makes it a lot more palatable. If you put it in fiction, they're more likely to read it and perhaps think about it. The highest praise I've gotten so far is that somebody living in Delaware told me, after they read my book, they were driving down Kirkwood, which is where the families all live. She was looking at the families waiting at the bus stop, and she saw them differently. That's my job. That's my goal.

Of course it's the 21st century and so there's a website to go with the book: The Unknown American Project where others get an opportunity to have their say. Here the author writes:

One of my hopes for The Book of Unknown Americans was that it might tell stories people don't usually hear. And now, another hope: that we will all tell our #UnknownAmerican stories. Where did you or your family come from? What is your life like now? We'll create a chorus and make our voices known.

There weren't many entries when I first checked but here's how Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's story begins:

ChimamandaI left Nigeria to go to university in the United States [when] I was 19. My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my "tribal music," and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove.

I enjoyed this book. The writing is clear and unpretentious and suits its subject matter. On the whole, as I've said, it's a little tame but that's really my only criticism of it. And I say that even when someone gets murdered. But it does what I'm sure the author intended it to do: it opens our eyes. What we make of what we've seen is another thing. This book won't change the world but I would like to see it introduced into schools because it has much to say that people who are going to shape our future need to hear.


628x471Cristina Henríquez's previous books are The World in Half and Come Together, Fall Apart: A Novella and Stories, which was a New York Times Editors' Choice selection.

Her stories have been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Glimmer Train, The American Scholar, Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, and AGNI along with the anthology This is Not Chick Lit: Original Stories by America's Best Women Writers.

She was featured in Virginia Quarterly Review as one of "Fiction's New Luminaries," has been a guest on National Public Radio, and is a recipient of the Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation Award, a grant started by Sandra Cisneros in honour of her father.

Cristina earned her undergraduate degree from Northwestern University and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She has lived in at least seven states and is now based in Chicago, where she lives with her husband and young daughter.

A Slight Trick of the Mind

Posted: 22 Jun 2014 04:03 AM PDT

A Slight Trick of the Mind
"I am a brain, Watson. The rest of me is a mere appendix." – Arthur Conan Doyle, 'The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone'

"I have no understanding of love," he said miserably. "I have never made claim that I do." So says the protagonist of Mitch Cullin's new novel. And yet this is a book all about love. Well, loves. Different kinds. But let's start with one of my loves: Sherlock Holmes. I'm a big fan. I've watched everything that's ever been televised since I was a kid from Basil Rathbone on including the spoofs like Without a Clue although the man I think of as my first Holmes is actually Peter Cushing and although his characterisation may not be on a par with Jeremy Brett's—surely the definitive performance—you never forget your first Holmes. I've enjoyed the recent spate of adaptations, modernisations and reimaginings, too—if you've never seen Jonny Lee Miller in Elementary I urge you to check out the show if only for Lucy Liu's wonderfully-understated Joan Watson—but oddly enough I haven't actually read any of the original novels or short stories. Kept meaning to but never quite got round to it. So when Canongate let me know that they were publishing a new Sherlock Holmes novel I thought it was time to rectify that omission. I read very little about the book beforehand. I knew it was set in 1947, Holmes is now ninety-three, retired, living on the southern slope of the Sussex Downs and, as you might expect of any ninety-three-year-old man, struggling with his memory.

Actors who've played Holmes

I was expecting a detective novel. Probably not an unreasonable assumption. I wasn't expecting great literature but I was okay with that. The book I read immediately prior to this was Margaret Drabble's The Millstone which I thoroughly enjoyed and is a beautifully-written, well-constructed work of literary fiction. Any author would have a hard time following that. So you can imagine my delight when I opened up A Slight Trick of the Mind and began to read a beautifully-written, well-constructed work of literary fiction. This doesn't mean there's no detection in the book—this is still a Sherlock Holmes novel and the man is incapable of switching off his powers of deduction—but this is not a case, not in that sense, although there is plenty of stuff to solve if only "the confounding enigmas that were his pockets":
[O]ften small items went in without much thought—bits of paper, broken matches, a cigar, stems of grass, an interesting stone or shell found upon the beach, those unusual things gathered during his walks—only to vanish or appear later as if by magic.
There are three storylines all containing at least one bona fide mystery to be solved:
  1. The distant past: Sherlock in his prime—and for once sans Watson—solves the mystery of where his client's wife goes during the day. Whereas the rest of the book is written in the third person we learn of this case directly from Holmes in the form of a written record entitled The Glass Armonicist.
  2. The recent past: Sherlock and a Japanese companion with whom he has been corresponding wander around Japan in search of prickly ash, a plant that allegedly increases longevity.
  3. The present: Having just returned from Japan. Sherlock resumes his normal daily routine. This thread focuses on his relationships with his housekeeper, Mrs Munro, and her fourteen-year-old son, Roger.
Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character. I know that may sound like I'm stating the obvious here so let me clarify. The 'Sherlock Holmes' that John Watson presented to the world through his writings is not the man we get to meet in this novel. It turns out Watson had a talent for embellishment and, on occasion, downright fabrication. When asked if he owns any copies of John's books, Holmes responds:
Actually, I possess none—not even the flimsy paperbacks. Truthfully, I've only read a handful of the stories—and that was many years ago. I couldn't instil in John the basic difference between an induction and a deduction, so I stopped trying, and I also stopped reading his fabricated versions of the truth, because the inaccuracies drove me mad. You know, I never did call him Watson—he was John, simply John. But he really was a skilled writer, mind you—very imaginative, better with fiction than fact, I daresay.
So the man we get to meet in this novel is the real Sherlock Holmes or at least a shadow of the real Sherlock Holmes, a man who walks with two canes to steady him, although:
[H]e really required only the support of the right cane while walking; the left cane, however, had an invaluable dual purpose—to give him support should he lose hold of the right cane and find himself stooping to retrieve it, or to stand in as a quick replacement should the right cane ever become irretrievable.
Even as an old man he's still thinking two moves ahead.

I said this was a book about loves. Let me elucidate. In 'The Adventure of the Three Garridebs', Watson is shot in an encounter with a villain and although the bullet wound proves to be "quite superficial" in itself, Watson is struck by Holmes's reaction:
It was worth a wound; it was worth many wounds; to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.
That Holmes loves Watson has never been in doubt although when Holmes deduces his Japanese friend Tamiki Umezaki's sexual orientation the man responds with this:
     "I will say your observations about me and Hensuiro aren't terribly surprising. Without being too blunt—you are a bachelor who lived with another bachelor for many years."
     "Purely platonic, I assure you."
     "If you say so."
In 'A Scandal in Bohemia' Watson describes the high regard in which Holmes held Irene Adler, a retired American opera singer and actress:
To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler...yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.
Glass ArmonicaIt seems, however, that there was another woman of whom John was to learn nothing. In The Glass Armonicist Holmes records how he solved what he calls The Case of Mrs. Ann Keller of Fortis Grove. No doubt Watson would've thought of a catchier title but this is Holmes's record: accurate if uninspired. As cases go it barely tasks him so why, all these many years later, would he sit down to record it lest it be lost to him? Quite simply because of Mrs. Ann Keller of Fortis Grove and what he describes as a "common, unremarkable photograph of a married woman [with an] alluring, curious face".

Because of Holmes's longevity it seems that all the usual characters we've come to know and love have now passed on: John Watson is dead; Mrs Hudson who accompanied him to the Sussex farmhouse upon his retirement is dead; his brother Mycroft is dead and one can only assume Inspector Lestrade is dead although no mention is made of him. His relationship with Mrs Munro, the latest in a number of housekeepers he's employed over the years, is unremarkable but the same cannot be said of his feelings towards her son:
[W]hile he rarely enjoyed the company of children, it was difficult avoiding the paternal stirrings he harboured for Mrs. Munro's son (how, he had often pondered, could that meandering woman have borne such a promising offspring?). But even at his advanced age, he found it impossible to express his true affections, especially toward a fourteen-year-old whose father had been among the British army casualties in the Balkans and whose presence, he suspected, Roger sorely missed.


"He's a good boy," [his mother had] said when taking the job of housekeeper. "Keeps to himself, rather shy—very quiet, more like his father was. He won't be a burden on you, I promise."
That news pleased Holmes at the time and for the longest time the two kept their distance but the boy's fascination with Holmes's beeyard provides unexpected common ground and by the time Holmes heads off to Japan he's comfortable leaving his precious bees in what he regards as the safe hands of young Roger.

I don't recall too many stories where Holmes ventures beyond the borders of the UK—obviously 'The Final Problem' where he tracks Moriarty to Switzerland is a notable exception—but we discover in this book that he's actually travelled widely during his life although this is his first trip to Japan. Even in his dotage Holmes still receives a great deal of correspondence. One of Mrs Munro's tasks is to sort his mail according to his precise instructions:
From a wicker basket placed on the library table, she took out bundles of correspondence (letters bearing foreign postmarks, small packages, large envelopes), and, as instructed to do once a week, she began sorting them into appropriate stacks based on size. […] The letters to the left, the packages in the middle, the larger envelopes on the right.


Rarely did he respond to any of it, and never did he indulge journalists, writers, or publicity seekers. Still, he usually perused every letter sent, examined the contents of every package delivered.


Sometimes these lucky letters beckoned him elsewhere: an herb garden beside a ruined abbey near Worthing, where a strange hybrid of burdock and red dock thrived; a bee farm outside of Dublin, bestowed by chance with a slightly acidic, though not unpalatable, batch of honey as a result of moisture covering the combs one particularly warm season; most recently, Shimonoseki, a Japanese town that offered specialty cuisine made from prickly ash, which, along with a diet of miso paste and fermented soybeans, seemed to afford the locals sustained longevity (the need for documentation and firsthand knowledge of such rare, possibly life-extending nourishment being the chief pursuit of his solitary years).
ArthurConanDoyle_AStudyInScarlet_annualHence his trip to Japan. On arriving, though, he soon realises that his host has an ulterior motive for his invite. The man's father had abandoned his family some forty years earlier and the last correspondence from him included a copy of A Study in Scarlet along with a letter to his wife which Umezaki translates for Holmes:
After consulting with the great detective Sherlock Holmes here in London, I realize that it is in the best interest of all of us if I remain in England indefinitely. You will see from this book that he is, indeed, a very wise and intelligent man, and his say in this important matter should not be taken lightly. I have already made arrangements for the property and my finances to be placed in your care, until such a time as Tamiki can take over these responsibilities in adulthood.
Holmes says he can't remember meeting the man. Has he simply forgotten or is there more going on here?

These are three disparate threads and it's hard to imagine that Cullin could weave them together and yet he manages it. The bees help.

Notably Doyle tried to kill of his creation when Holmes was at the peak of his popularity. Not that the public was having any of it. And there have been numerous writers who've chosen to quit while they're ahead much to the irritation of their fans but we all know what happens when a great idea gets beaten to death. The thing is we know going into this that Holmes isn't the man he was even if who we thought he was wasn't who he really was. There's a decent chance we're going to be disappointed. And some readers have been. At time of writing 5% of the reviews on Goodreads gave the book a niggardly one star; that's nineteen people; the average was 3.45. Valerie, who gave the book two stars, wrote:
There wasn't much that happened. There wasn't much character growth. There wasn't any action. There [were] just people talking to other people, people having thoughts, people walking around... that really sums it up, I'm sad to say. At first, it grabbed my interest because I was super curious to see where it was going with the three different timelines it was following. But then I started to suspect that it wasn't really going anywhere fascinating after all. & I was right.
She's not wrong and if you are looking for the-Sherlock-you-know-and-love there is a good chance you will be dissatisfied. Max222 over on Amazon—he gives the book three stars—makes a valid point when he notes:
[I]s it really a Sherlock Holmes story? Not really I would argue. You see I was expecting it to be sad and moving which it is, but also to have a mystery in it—and it doesn't really. […] I realise the author is deliberately trying to show a different side to Holmes but really this could be any main protagonist. And I don't say that just because Holmes has been aged for the bulk of the novel, which is an idea I like—I just don't feel the Conan Doyle character was within these pages even aged 90.
Agreed but I've already addressed this. We're told that the Holmes in the books was never the real Holmes:
I am afraid I never wore a deerstalker, or smoked the big pipe—mere embellishments by an illustrator, intended to give me distinction, I suppose, and sell magazines. I didn't get much say in the matter.
So, let's just say for a moment, that this isn't a Sherlock Holmes novel. Let's just say this is a novel about some nonagenarian who happened once to work as a private eye or even as a detective in the Metropolitan Police. Would the story work? Indubitably. Holmes's name will help sell the book but the book's strength is that it doesn't depend on the old guy being Holmes to work. But because he is Holmes a great deal of the groundwork is done for Cullin because all of us have some idea who Holmes is even if it is a flawed one. Whether the book is insightful is another matter. It depends on whether you expect your author to raise interesting questions and then to answer them or simply to raise interesting questions and leave you to ponder them. Mostly Cullin does the latter and I was fine with that. In a short interview over at GQ Cullin says:
[M]y version of Holmes is a highly metaphorical creation that, at the time, was used by me as a way to better understand my own father's struggle with dementia […] That said, my research and my writing of the book made every effort possible to be true in nature to Conan Doyle's character and the entire canon that contains him.
Life is a mystery and one would've hoped if anyone was going to 'solve' it, it would be Sherlock Holmes. He gives it his best shot but he really has left it too late. So, yes, this is a sad book but sadness, like love, is an emotion that comes in many shades and I'm still trying to decide what kind of sad I feel now I've finished it. Certainly not the disappointed kind.

The book is being filmed with Sir Ian McKellen playing the lead—an inspired (although at the same time obvious) choice I'd say—and one I'm looking forward to.

I loved this book. I'm well aware that there were a couple of times when Holmes's dialogue wasn't absolutely spot on but I'm not going to lop off a star for something as trivial as that. Now what we don't want to see is a sequel. Either on the page or on the silver screen.


Mitch Cullin
Mitch Cullin is the author of seven novels, and one short story collection, including the novel Tideland, the film adaptation of which was directed by Terry Gilliam, and the novel-in-verse, Branches. He lives between Arcadia, California and Tokyo, Japan with his long-term partner and frequent collaborator Peter I. Chang. As a teenager he was featured in USA Today in 1984 as one of the foremost Holmes fans in the world. According to his bio on Red Room: "He continues to write novels in decreasing spurts and increasing sputters, but usually he can be found ambling around his garden in the San Gabriel Valley of Los Angeles County."

The Millstone

Posted: 15 Jun 2014 06:56 PM PDT

But whoso shall offend one of these little ones who believe in me, it were better that a millstone were hanged about his neck and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea (Matthew 18:6)

Margaret Drabble has been described as "a women's novelist" although who first tarred her with that epithet I haven't been able to ascertain, but according to The Cambridge Introduction to Modern British Fiction, 1950-2000 Ellen Cronan Rose has suggested that it's nevertheless a useful label if it's meant to indicate that "her subject was what it was like to be a woman in a world which calls woman the second sex."[1] The term "women's novelist" does feel like a restrictive—if not downright disparaging—term, suggesting that she's writing both from a limited perspective and for a limited demographic. Drabble herself says that although many of her novels focus on "a specific section of women that I happen to know about, middle-class women with ambition, in other words," she does not consciously write about women "in general terms."[2] She says, "When I'm writing I don't think of myself wholly as a woman ... I've tried to avoid writing as a woman because it does create its own narrowness."[3] This echoes what her peers, Iris Murdoch and A.S. Byatt, have said and much space has been devoted to arguing whether or not any of these three are feminist writers. I suppose there's feminism and feminism-with-a-capital-f but either way I don't imagine there'll be many men out there who'll want to read about the trials of an unmarried mother in the mid-sixties. And that would be their loss.
The second sex is an anatomy of what Drabble has called "the situation of being a woman" in a man's world. It asserts that one is not born but becomes a woman. De Beauvoir described "how woman undergoes her apprenticeship, how she experiences her situation, in what kind of universe she is confined, what modes of escape are vouchsafed her."[4]
I grew up a man in a man's world. It still is a man's world and I'm still a man. Things are changing, yes, but nowhere near as fast as they ought; conditioning—and there's no better word for it—is hard to shake off. People read for lots of different reasons but one of the main reasons to do so as far as I'm concerned is so I can, for a few hours at least, get some idea what it's like inside someone else's head. And there's nothing more intriguing as far as I'm concerned that a woman's head. I grew up in a world where I was told—and accepted based on what little evidence I had—that women were not like "us"; we'd never understand them so why bother trying? Well, I don't know about you but I don't like not being able to get things.

A while back I read Margaret Drabble's most recent novel, The Pure Gold Baby. It was the first of her books I'd read and I really didn't know what she'd be like. This is how I opened my subsequent review:
I didn't expect to like this book. Don't get me wrong, I didn't set out with any agenda and had very few preconceptions but I still didn't expect to like the book. I didn't love it but I did like it and by liking it I don't mean that I didn't hate it; I actually enjoyed reading it; I looked forward to the next day when I could pick it up again; I wanted to know what was going to happen next; I invested something of myself in the book.
Pure Gold BabyThe thing is this was a book about motherhood and yet I still enjoyed it. So when Canongate told me they were bringing out a selection of Drabble's back catalogue as ebooks, I jumped at the chance to read another and opted for (arguably) her most famous book, The Millstone, which just happens to be another one about motherhood. I was curious to compare the Drabble of 2014 with the Drabble of 1965. The Millstone is about an unmarried, young academic who becomes pregnant after a one-night stand and, against all odds, decides to give birth to her child and raise it herself. Not all that different from The Pure Gold Baby. At least on the surface.

The book opens:
My career has always been marked by a strange mixture of confidence and cowardice: almost, one might say, made by it. Take, for instance, the first time I tried spending a night with a man in a hotel. I was nineteen at the time, an age appropriate for such adventures, and needless to say I was not married. I am still not married, a fact of some significance, but more of that later. The name of the boy, if I remember rightly, was Hamish. I do remember rightly. I really must try not to be deprecating. Confidence, not cowardice, is the part of myself which I admire, after all.
Now I don't know about you but the voice I heard in my head from the very start was that of a young Judy Dench and I make no apologies for pointing your mind in that direction because I cannot imagine anyone delivering these lines better; I did try replacing her with Joanna Lumley for a paragraph or two but it didn't work. In the 1969 film version (A Touch of Love, Thank You All Very Much, US)—which Drabble herself adapted—the part went to the not-dissimilar-looking Sandy Dennis who, despite being an American, was a decent choice and about the right age; Dench would've been a tad old although neither actresses possessed the especially "fine A_Touch_of_Love_FilmPosterpair of legs" that Rosamund says she has and since Rosamund always speaks her mind and is ferociously-honest (at least on the printed page), if she says she has a "fine pair of legs" then they must be indeed fine. (Credit should go too to whoever cast Eleanor Bron as the best friend and Ian McKellan as the gay radio announcer).

Hamish is not who gets her pregnant. In fact some ten years flit by before that happens and as it happens it's her first (and I suspect her last) attempt at any form of carnality—she closes her eyes throughout the whole procedure but does not think of England—although who knows what might unfold after the book's final chapter? We don't learn much about Rosamund's upbringing: despite the fact her parents weren't short of a bob or two, they were apparently committed Socialists although I don't believe Socialists have anything particularly against sex. Drabble was brought up as a Quaker and Quakers also don't have anything against sex in the right context. But Rosamund isn't interested which is odd. What's odder is that she's not especially interested in love. (I thought all woman had romance on the brain.) She has her studies and for the most part they satisfy her. She is prone to occasional spells of loneliness and so, practical person that she is, has a number of friends, but friends she likes to keep at a distance:
It took me some time to work out what, from others, I needed most, and finally I decided, after some sad experiments, that the one thing I could not dispense with was company. After much trial and error, I managed to construct an excellent system, which combined, I considered, fairness to others, with the maximum possible benefit to myself.
This makes her seem a bit cold and calculated and I suppose she is on one level. Like most people at that time—remember the Summer of Love is still a couple of years off—she's pretty ignorant about sex. Her male friends, however, don't appear to be, but as they're finding comfort elsewhere no one's pressuring her to put out.

What do you think of when you hear the term 'academic'? Someone who wiles her days away in the British Museum researching Elizabethan sonnet sequences? Someone who doesn't own a TV? Someone who's not really a part of life? I'm sure Drabble made Rosamund an academic for a good reason. She's certainly no militant feminist. Not that she's considered the matter and taken a stand. Rather the opposite. She's never really been faced with issues of feminism or even femininity. She's an intellectual, grounded, level-headed and in this context gender is academic. When she does finally get round to sex—an act where she needs to play the woman—what's noteworthy about her chosen partner is that he is—as far as she's aware—gay:
At the touch of my mouth, he took me in his arms and kissed me all over the face, and eventually we subsided gently together and lay there quietly. Knowing that he was queer, I was not frightened of him at all, because I thought that he would expect no more from me, and I was so moved and touched and pleased by the thought that he might like me, by the thought that he found me of interest. I was so happy for that hour that we lay there because truly I seemed to see him through the eyes of love, so irrationally valuable did he seem. I look back now with some anguish to each touch and glance, to every changing conjunction of limbs and heads and hands. I have lived it over every day for so long now that I am in danger of forgetting the true shape of how it was, because each time I go over it I wish that I had given a little more here or there, or at the very least said what was in my heart, so that he could have known how much it meant to me. But I was incapable, even when happy, of exposing myself thus far.
Why exactly he chooses to have sex with her we'll never know. Charity? An act of kindness? Vague curiosity? Does he simply misread the signals? Rosamund wonders:
After all, I said to myself, people don't do that to other people just because they think they ought to. Just through sheer politeness because they think they've been invited in to do it. People don't work like that, I said to myself. He must have wanted it a bit, I told myself, or he wouldn't have bothered. However kind he appears to be, he can't be as kind as all that. He must be one of these bisexual people, I thought, or perhaps even he's no more queer than I am promiscuous, or whatever the word is for what I pretend to be. Perhaps we appeal to each other because we're rivals in hypocrisy.
What it isn't, and this applies to the both of them, is love. Love is something Rosamund has a problem with. Ironic, then, that she would take as a subject Elizabethan love poets. She talks about having been in love with Hamish when she was nineteen but it's clear that she's just using 'in love' as a common expression and as indication of how the nineteen-year-old her felt she felt as opposed to how she truly felt:
When Hamish and I loved each other for a whole year without making love, I did not realize that I had set the mould of my whole life. One could find endless reasons for our abstinence – fear, virtue, ignorance, perversion – but the fact remains that the Hamish pattern was to be endlessly repeated, and with increasing velocity and lack of depth, so that eventually the idea of love ended in me almost the day that it began. Nothing succeeds, they say, like success, and certainly nothing fails like failure. I was successful in my work, so I suppose other successes were too much to hope for.
Motherhood will change all that. But first she has to get through the pregnancy and that actually takes up the bulk of a not-very-bulky book. Characteristically Rosamund views things dispassionately seeing no good reason why gravidity should get in the way of her career so doesn't let it and makes plans to ensure that her child when born will also not get in her way. What I found interesting is the way she refers to the foetus as 'it' despite the fact the book's clearly written by an older her sometime after the baby is born. Only after the birth do we discover the sex. Only then does Rosamund come face to face with love:
[The nurse] put her in my arms and I sat there looking at her, and her great wide blue eyes looked at me with seeming recognition, and what I felt it is pointless to try to describe. Love, I suppose one might call it, and the first of my life.


I used to think that love bore some relation to merit and to beauty, but now I saw that this was not so.
Having a child changes you. I'm not talking about physically because after the birth "the muscles of [her] belly snap back into place without a mark." It changes you as a person. Unless you're broken. Rosamund makes room for her daughter and adds the role of mother to the things she's doing already but other than that she really does change very little; because she refuses to.
I simply did not believe that the handicap of one small illegitimate baby would make a scrap of difference to my career…
She loves the baby but only as a "small living extension" of herself, something she's produced, like her thesis. That's the thing about Rosamund. She's not an everywoman; she's a person and a flawed one. Not every woman would handle things as well as she does—not that she handles everything well, of course not (her early attempt at abortion is laughable)—and there are examples in the book of women who aren't having such an easy time. She regains her figure but not all do:
[S]ome of the women looked as big as they had looked before. I am haunted even now by a memory of the way they walked, large and tied into shapeless dressing gowns, padding softly and stiffly, careful not to disturb the pain that still lay between the legs.
Drabble is known for her social commentary and what's interesting is how badly the NHS come off in this novel, the crowded waiting rooms, the often insensitive nursing staff and the excessive paperwork.

There're times you'd mistake Rosamund for a snob and you wouldn't be wrong. She's lived a privileged life. She's not royalty or anything but she's had a cushy time of it and this is the first time she's had to be in the company of commoners and she cannot help but be moved by it. One of the most striking moments happens when, in the antenatal clinic, a mother she's never met before asks her to hold her sleeping baby while she visits with the midwife:
She made her way off to the midwife's room and I sat there with this huge and monstrously heavy child sitting warm and limp upon my knee, his nose slightly running and his mouth open to breathe. I was amazed by his weight; my legs felt quite crushed under it. I also realized that he was not only warm but damp; his knitted leggings were leaking quite copiously onto my knee. I shifted him around but did not dare to move much for fear of waking him and having to put up with his playing up something shocking: I was worried about whether the damp patch would show on my coat, and hoped it would not. I sat there for a good ten minutes with this child upon my lap; it was the first time I had ever held a baby and after a while, simultaneously with preoccupations about damp on my coat, a sense of the infant crept through me, its small warmness, its wide soft cheeks, and above all its quiet, snuffly breathing. I held it tighter and closed my arms around it.
She's still pregnant herself at this point and so this is the first time she's ever held a baby in her arms.
Rosamund is less of a feminist icon and more an independent woman. When she runs into the child's father at the end of the book he says to her:
        'You seem to have done all right, you seem to have done as well as anyone.'
         'How do you mean?' I said.
         'Well,' he said, 'by your own accounts, you've got a nice job, and a nice baby. What more could anyone want?'
         'Some people might want a nice husband too,' I said.
         'But not you, surely?' said George. 'You never seemed to want a husband.'
         'No,' I said, 'perhaps I never did. Though I sometimes think it might be easier, to have one. It would be nice to have someone to fill in my income tax forms, for instance,' and I pointed despairingly at the mess of papers laid out on the hearth rug.
         'You can't have everything,' said George.
         'No, indeed,' I said. 'And I have more than most people, I admit.'
For me this is what raised the book and kept my interest. Rosamund is a fascinating—although not always a sympathetic—character. That she happens to fall pregnant is neither here nor there. If she'd been faced with the task of nursing a terminally ill relative she would've handled things because that's what she does. Ignorance is an inconvenience, nothing more. If you don't know you find out. Obstacles can be worked around, even baby-shaped ones.

Rosamund is blinkered. If something (like a child) can be brought within her field of vision then good and well. But she's not big on concessions. I found this anecdote about Drabble illuminating:
Margaret Drabble recalled how she managed to write a book about Wordsworth: "I wrote the whole thing—the re-write, that is—in the ten days when I was in hospital when my youngest child was born. I took my typewriter into hospital—I sat in the ambulance clutching it saying, 'Don't take that away.' My baby was born ten minutes after I got to hospital. And the minute I got into bed I got my typewriter and was able to get on. I had some lovely fish and chips and a nice evening's work."[5]
I can see some women being disturbed by her insouciance but there are those writers who work around real life and those who squeeze real life in where they can. Rosamund may not be a writer—Drabble was never an academic—but she is the kind of person who just gets on with stuff. I found her no less absorbing than Camus's Meursault. When at one point the baby falls ill Rosamund, with the same dispassion and detachment with which Meursault talks about his mother, records:
For five minutes or so, I almost hoped that she might die, and thus relieve me of the corruption and the fatality of love. Ben Jonson said of his dead child, my sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy. We too easily take what the poets write as figures of speech, as pretty images, as strings of bons mots. Sometimes perhaps they speak the truth.
I said at the start of this article that this is a book about motherhood. Really it's not and it's not even a book about pregnancy. Pregnancy sought to entrap her—"I was in a human limit for the first time in my life, and I was going to have to learn to live inside it"—but she refuses to allow it to—having a remarkably easy time of it certainly doesn't hurt (even labour only lasts a short time); motherhood she also hopes to bend to her will refusing even to involve her family. These are side issues though. This is a book about what it's like to be driven. It's an easy read—a deceptively easy read—but there's some deep (and dark) stuff here and I've only touched on a fraction of it. Delusions need something to fuel them and money certainly helps. Had Rosamund grown up in Possilpark this would've been a completely different read.

One thing I should perhaps clarify is the fact that Rosamund, despite her failings as a person, is a good and not merely a good, but devoted mother. One of the most powerful scenes in the book—and even more so in the film—is where her child has needed to be hospitalised and the staff won't allow her to see her. After trying to be patient and polite she's finally had enough:

Claire Tomalin wrote that Drabble "is one of the few modern novelists who has actually changed government policy, by what she wrote in The Millstone about visiting children in hospital". Now, thanks in part to Drabble, mothers will never have to scream like Rosamund in order to see their babies.

In his essay on The Millstone Peter Firchow comments on an affinity between Jane Austen and Drabble
[I]t is no doubt appropriate that Drabble should have suffered, as Austen did, from a habit of mind that confounds smallness of scope with smallness of mind. [...] The work of the miniaturist, it seems, is at present in ever greater disrepute than it was a century and a half ago.[6]
Not having read any Austen—although familiar enough with her work through various screen adaptations—I can also see that Drabble has much also in common with Anita Brookner who is likewise able to portray complex psychological motivations in simple, eloquent language and who similarly has an affinity for socially repressed women; additionally neither author overstays her welcome on the page. I suspect I'll be reading more of both.


NPG P1326; Dame Margaret Drabble (Lady Holroyd)Margaret Drabble was born June 5, 1939 in Sheffield, Yorkshire, England. Her father, John Frederick Drabble, was a barrister, a county court judge and a novelist. The author A.S. Byatt is her older sister.

She attended the Mount School, York, a Quaker boarding-school, and was awarded a major scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge, where she read English and received double honours. After graduation she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford during which time she understudied for Vanessa Redgrave.

In 1960 she married her first husband, actor Clive Swift, best known for his role as the henpecked husband in the BBC television comedy Keeping Up Appearances, with whom she had three children in the 1960's; they divorced in 1975. She subsequently married the biographer Michael Holroyd in the early 1980's. They live in London and also have a house in Somerset.

Her novel The Millstone won the John Llewelyn Rhys Prize and she was the recipient of a Society of Author's Travelling Fellowship in the mid-1960's. She also received the James Tait Black and the E.M. Forster awards. She was awarded the CBE in 1980 and she was promoted to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2008 Birthday Honours.
One last clip, an indulgence. In this scene Rosamund is in labour and has been assigned to the wrong room. The actress who plays the nurse who notices isn't credited (not even in IMDB) but no one could've played her better.


[1] Dominic Head ed., The Cambridge Introduction to Modern British Fiction, 1950-2000, p.86 . Here the quote is attributed to Ellen Cronan Rose but as she was an editor I suspect she is being misquoted. The same phrase is used by Suhasini Tapaswi in her book Feminine Sensibility in the Novels of Margaret Drabble on page 36; I'm assuming she's referencing Rose's book even if she's not crediting her since The Novels of Margaret Drabble came out in 1980.
[2] Joanne V. Creighton, 'An Interview with Margaret Drabble' in Dorey Schmidt ed. Margaret Drabble: Golden Realms, p.25 quoted in Lisa M Fiander Fairy Tales and the Fiction of Iris Murdoch, Margaret Drabble and AS Byatt, p.11
[3] Diane Cooper-Clark, 'Margaret Drabble: Cautious Feminist' in Atlantic Monthly 246, November 1980 p.19 quoted in Lisa M Fiander Fairy Tales and the Fiction of Iris Murdoch, Margaret Drabble and AS Byatt, p.11
[4] Suhasini Tapaswi Feminine Sensibility in the Novels of Margaret Drabble, p.33
[5] Pat Williams, 'The Sisters Drabble', The Sunday Times Magazine, 6 August 1967, pp.12-15
[6] Peter E. Firchow , 'Rosamund's Complaint: 'Margaret Drabble's The Millstone (1966)' in Robert K. Morris ed. Old Lines, New Forces: Essays on the Contemporary British Novel, 1960-1970, p.96

Poetry and Zen

Posted: 08 Jun 2014 04:00 AM PDT

Great Doubt, Great Awakening; small doubt, small awakening; no doubt, no awakening. – Zen proverb

I favour poems written in plain English. And short. For many years it was rare for me to write a poem that contained more than eight or nine lines. I said what I had to say and got off the page. I didn't grow up reading this kind of poetry. I grew up on the likes of Walter de la Mare, William Wordsworth, Robert Louis Stevenson and, of course being a Scot, Robert Burns—good ol'-fashioned narrative verse where people went for walks to see the sea or alongside brooks or sat in fields looking at flowers. Poetry was always about something. It told a story. I didn't need to be that caught up in the process. At least when I was a kid I could see no good reason to get involved and so obviously I was only reading the poems superficially but no one told me that was wrong.
At secondary school we started to delve into the mechanics of poetry. I was familiar with rhyme and rhythm already—that's how you knew what a poem was, if it utilised these techniques—but there was more, clever stuff like alliteration and onomatopoeia. There was something else that wasn't talked about but that I picked up on myself. Call it a moment of insight if you like—a follower of Zen might use the term 'kenshō'—although it really was the polar opposite: a moment of uncertainty or doubt. It came to me at the end of Larkin's poem 'Mr Bleaney':
But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread

That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better, I don't know.
It's a single sentence sixty-five words long but I don't find it the easiest of sentences to hold in my head. I couldn't count the number of times I've read the poem but I still can't recite it from memory although what I can say is that every time I read it I encounter the same sensation. It's a feeling I've tried to incorporate into almost every one of my poems since first reading it over forty years ago. Less of an 'aha moment' and more an 'eh? moment'.
At the time of this great … let's just go with encounter because it really wasn't any kind of revelation … I hadn't read any Oriental poetry whatsoever. I'm sure nowadays they use haiku in primary schools routinely as a way into poetry but it was years later that I stumbled upon this style of poetry (thank you Ezra Pound) and in it I found this same frustrating lack. The poems seemed incomplete: they said something but I always got the feeling they were really saying something else. They'd lead the reader only so far and demanded he or she took those final last few steps to … 'enlightenment' is probably too strong a word, so let's just go with 'understanding' … they demanded he or she took those final last few steps to understanding on their own. They rarely stated. They hinted.
you make the fire
and I'll show you something wonderful:
ahowlingdog big ball of snow!

Matsuo Bashō

a dog howling
sound of footsteps
longer nights

Masaoka Shiki
There's no question mark at the end of Larkin's poem but it's still a question nevertheless. I'd never been in a bedsit in my puff when I first read it and yet I empathised with the poem's narrator lying there in his empty-in-all-the-important-ways, sarcophagal room. He was wondering about the meaning of his life. (What else would one do in a quasi-coffin?) I was wondering about the meaning of mine assuming that there are individual answers to the question and it's not the same answer for all of us; now that would be depressing.
I was asked recently to explain my poetry. It's not an easy question to answer. This was what I came up with off the cuff:
I aim to leave my readers with … the best expression I can come up with is 'a sense of unease' … when they reach the end of a poem, the realisation that its true meaning rests in their hands.
I didn't spend a long time coming up with that but having done so and finding myself dissatisfied with what I'd written I've come back to the question.
A poem should take you out of your comfort zone. It should make you uncomfortable. If you're lying in bed or maybe have been sitting in a chair reading for a long while and you become uncomfortable what do you do? You change position. That is what a good poem sets out to do, to make you change your position, your perspective, on some matter. We all bring our own baggage with us to a poem. To accommodate that poem it may be necessary to shift that baggage around a little.
Night_BoatA while ago I read Alan Spence's novel Night Boat which tells the life story of Hakuin Ekaku, one of the most influential figures in Japanese Zen Buddhism. It's a book full of poetry and Zen. Whatever Zen is. It's one of those many, many words we use routinely that we think we understand but struggle to explain. Dictionaries define words by using other words and every other word they use also requires defining by a similar amount of other words which, too, require defining by more and more other words. I am not sure that true understanding demands that evidence be provided of its attainment by a summation of said understanding in words. If that was the case how would any of us cope if asked to explain 'love' or 'happiness' or 'grief'? My definition of each of these words is experiential not academic; it's personal to me. That being the case my definitions may be flawed or limited but at least they're mine and true to my experience of them.
At the same time as I was reading this book I was also submitting poems to various journals online. As always I started with the later poems—those poems that were fresh enough that I still had some emotional attachment to them and hence thought them better than most of my older stuff—but after a few days I started considering poems twenty or thirty years old—I went through a long period of not bothering to try to get my stuff published which is why I have so many unpublished—and the experience was quite different. Some I could still remember writing or at least I could remember the circumstances surrounding the poem but there were others that had no choice but to stand on their own and be judged as good or bad based on nothing bar the words on the page. If you're a writer you'll understand how hard it is—it's nigh on impossible, let's be honest about it—to look at something we've written with anything approaching objectivity. No poem is ever complete—Paul Valery's quote about all poems being abandoned comes to mind here—but the worst poems are like icebergs: 90% of them are still stuck inside the poet's head which is why when he's reunited with the poem as far as he's concerned it's complete and it's wonderful—it says exactly what he wanted it to say—and he won't brook any criticism of it. If you don't get it then it's your fault because it's perfect. It's only when you read someone else's poems that you start to realise how little you've left the readers of your own poems to work with. The trick, though, is not to cram everything in in an attempt to ensure your reader has no option but to get exactly what you were on about—that's what prose is for—but to lead them along the garden path and then let go of their hand before they reach the gate or the fence or the swing or wherever it is you want them to end up.
Here's a lovely tanka I found online. It's by Sunil Manghani:
Across worldly maps
oceans are inscribed as words
and yet as we write
such boundaries will wash through,
how strange we think only in words
This isn't a complex sentence—only twenty-five words compared to Larkin's sixty-five—but it does exactly the same. It's not a puzzle to work out but it is something to think about. Now here's a puzzle to work out:

Sometimes you have to go
to Z
before you can get
to B
and sometimes you need
to stop
to P on the way back.

7 June 1997
It's one of mine, a little play on words and there's not much below the surface. It's certainly not the most profound thing I've ever written and once you've worked it out that's about it. It pleases me every time I read it but it doesn't really do much more for me. The tanka on the other hand, although at first it seems like a little puzzle, is really more. It is about our reliance on language. We trust things we can define that we can trap in words. Definitions hem us in, though, like borders. A girl asks her boyfriend, "Do you love me?" and he says he does because he knows what's good for him but what does he know? He knows he's fond of her. He knows he finds her physically attractive. He enjoys her company; she's got a good sense of humour and better still she laughs at his jokes. He wants to be with her and not just for the sex so maybe it is love. If the word never existed would it change how he felt? Would he suddenly not enjoy her as much simply because he didn't have a label to pin on the relationship?
The 'answer' to the tanka is to think about it. You can't merely read it, get it and be done with it. And that's the case with most poetry which is why it's such a bad fit in today's society. No one has time to meditate. And by 'meditate' I don't mean sitting around in the lotus position going, "Om"; I mean thinking deeply about stuff. That's what meditation's all about. What's the point telling someone to meditate on a koan and for them to go away and think about nothing? They need to think about the koan.
Here's a poem from Alan's book:
You think you understand anything?
Unless you hear the sound of one hand
It's all just nonsense.
May as well stretch a skin
Over a wooden koto.
It's in the chapter entitled 'One Hand Clapping' which is probably the kōan most laymen have heard of even if they don't know what a kōan is. This is what Alan's Hakuin has to say about his poem:
Skin on a koto. Animal hide stretched taut over the beautiful paulownia wood, making the instrument impossible to play. The thought of it would cause anguish, that great ball of discomfort in the chest, rising into the throat, a good koan doing its work.
I hadn't finished the book when I started to write this article and so you can imagine how pleased I was to discover this. If asked most people would say they meditate to ease discomfort not to exacerbate it. I see it as a distraction technique: replace one discomfort with a lesser (or at least a different) one, a manageable one, one that only requires a change in position to alleviate it.
The most important and influential teaching of Hakuin was his emphasis on, and systematization of, koan practice. Hakuin deeply believed that the most effective way for a student to achieve insight was through extensive meditation on a koan. Only with incessant investigation of his koan will a student be able to become one with the koan, and attain enlightenment. The psychological pressure and doubt that comes when one struggles with a koan is meant to create tension that leads to awakening. Hakuin called this the "great doubt", writing, "At the bottom of great doubt lies great awakening. If you doubt fully, you will awaken fully." – Wikipedia
If you doubt you're not sure. We like to be sure. Are you sure that's what you mean?
Here's one of those old poems I was talking about earlier:

The man with the strange name
imagespassed her by
thinking strange thoughts
in a stranger's tongue.

His dark clothes caught her eye
for a moment
and then he was gone.

A feeling came and went
but she didn't know its name
and tried forgetting
what she wouldn't want to understand.

6 November 1982
To my mind this poem perfectly captures the unease I felt when I first read 'Mr Bleaney' and thirty-odd years later I still get that feeling. It's all about the limitations of language. As is this one:
White Light
Did you ever think you might have
done it because you wanted to?
she said after.
No need to apologize.

Drowning inside I close my
eyes allowing such feelings
to cover me as will.

Unaware of their names I
open my mouth to the waters.

2 June 1985
This was a very significant poem for me. It became the first of the 'Drowning Man Poems', a series I worked on for several years. The picture of a man drowning in emotions but never dying was an image that preoccupied me for four years. This is the last of the series:
The Drowned Man

FangsHe is undead.
He comes from within
and his name is Hunger.

I bring him women
to help feed him
because their feelings are the strongest.

They give him guilt
and fear
and pain –
now there's a feeling
to sink your teeth into.

25 June 1989
I find these very uncomfortable poems because I can remember being the guy who wrote them. I'd like to think that everyone finds themselves discomforted when they read them. Poems should not be easy. That said I'm quite against "difficult poetry" so probably what I'm saying here is that poetry should not be too easy. What happens in 'Empathy' is not hard to follow: a man dressed in unfamiliar dark clothes passes by a young woman. They don't even make eye contact and yet something still passes between them, something she can't put into words, something that makes her uneasy, something she would like to shrug off but can't.
What did he do in 'White Light'? Whatever it was she doesn't seem to mind. Why did he do it? Because he wanted to. Full stop. This was what bothered me. I was the person who did the something. It doesn't matter what the something was which is why I've not specified but I was looking for a reason why I a) wanted to do it and b) did it and the only thing I could come up with was that I wanted to, that it was enough simply to want, that there didn't have to be a reason behind everything. Maybe there is a reason behind everything—there most likely is—but we don't always benefit from knowing what that reason is. After I'd done what I did and thought about what I'd done and why I might've done it what I was then faced with were a mass of conflicting emotions. It was as if… Hey, that's a good idea for a poem, a guy drowning in emotions.
Neither of these poems is meant to be understood. At least not intellectually. There's little to understand. I'm looking for an emotional commitment. I want you to feel something even if you're not sure what exactly you're feeling other than uneasy. It took me four years to become comfortable—or at least less uncomfortable—with doing things because I wanted to and not questioning why I might want to do them. If I felt like an ice cream I'd get an ice cream. If I felt like a hug I'd find someone to hug. That mindset is not without its problems and it did cause me problems because we're supposed to think about stuff before we do it and not just do what we want do even if it's only something relatively innocent as looking for a hug. After four years I'd turned—poetically at least—into an emotional vampire. That's what 'The Drowned Man' is all about.
Haiku is very simply, and most difficultly, a record of what is happening at this very moment, and only this moment, right in front of and in the midst of your senses. It is the moment when what your senses are telling you pulls you totally under, so that you disappear and all that is left is the seeing, hearing, smelling, touching and tasting of the moment. Haiku, at its best, is therefore a small satori. Sprout_LightbulbAs Basho admonishes, there should not be even a hair's breadth between the writer and his/her subject. Anything less can be interesting reading, and, if bordering on senryū, can make you smile, but a real haiku makes you gasp and the hairs, wherever you may have them, stand up.
In haiku literature it is called the "Aha" moment both for the haijin (haiku writer) and for the haiku reader, for both reading and writing haiku find the reader and writer spun out of themselves and tossed to the far ends of the universe by three small lines, and often, these days, fewer. For a haiku records a moment that contains everything that comes before it and everything that is to come after it, and if your brain suddenly being introduced to such a moment doesn't shatter all its concepts, then the haiku under consideration can only be a half-baked haiku gesture. – Naomi Wakan, 'Haiku Is Not', Ascent Aspirations Magazine, August 2013, Vol. 17, No. 8
I am, as I have stated numerous times, not in any way, shape or form a spiritual person. I've enjoyed reading Alan Spence's book but I've only got it up to a point. All the visions and stuff about mountain sprits has just gone—whoosh!—over my head. For me poems can only be appreciated in one or both of two ways, intellectually or emotionally, and I think many people misuse the term 'spiritual' when it comes to things like the 'Aha moment'. It's a moment of clarity or of insight but there's nothing mystical about it. When you read a poem like 'Empathy' you can meditate on it all you like, think it through, but really what I'm looking for is for you to feel it through.
Satori by the way refers to the experience of kenshō, seeing into one's true nature. Poetry is very much a collaborative exercise. I'm not asking you to look into my soul, rather your own which is why 'White Light' is presented as a template poem, a stencil for you to fill in the blanks. When have you done something simply because you wanted to? I think this is why we either bond strongly with poems or forget about them quickly. If they don't take root in us then then shrivel up and die. There's an expression, 'make it your own', and that's what I want people to do with my poems, make them their own. I have a poem whose title escapes me at this precise moment but I think of it as 'the Barry poem' because when my boss at the time read it it reminded so much of her relationship with this guy called Barry that she asked for a copy of the poem and it became 'the Barry poem' from then on.
I looked up 'sense of unease' in Google to see what kind of poems it directed me to. Carol Ann Duffy's 'Human Interest' was one; Robert Browning's 'My Last Duchess' was another, one I knew well; then there was 'Meeting the British' by Paul Muldoon, 'A Narrow Fellow in the Grass' by Emily Dickinson, 'In the Sepia Sky' by James Gillick, 'Wanderweg' by Sarah Lucas and 'When Big Joan Sets Up' by Jason Labbe. I read them all but the one that jumped out at me, the one I connected with, was this one by the Spanish poet Eli Tolaretxipi from her collection Still Life with Loops in a translation by Philip Jenkins:
Nothing happens in the way that it happens in the poem

Nothing happens in the way that it happens in the poem.
It is the same in the photograph
which only says: I was there.
Something extraordinary and ephemeral happens:
a rainbow in the dishevelled hair of the wave
a whirlpool around the feet which are sinking in the sand
black body on a surfboard.
Untimely precipitation
black signs on the white and ruled page.
I'll leave you to meditate on it. Or maybe one of the others.
Empty polaroid

Echo's Bones

Posted: 01 Jun 2014 04:09 AM PDT


[D]on't rip up old stories – Henry Fielding, Tom Jones

Tim Martin ends his one-star review of Echo's Bones in The Telegraph by labelling it a work of interest to "specialists and masochists only"; I might add 'completists' but he does hit the nail squarely on the head. If you've never read Beckett before starting here will likely put you off for life. If you have read his more accessible stuff then read anything else—read everything else—before you approach this; it is not for the faint-hearted. 'Echo's Bones' itself is a short story, a long short story admittedly—some 13,500 words (longer than some of the sporadic prose pieces Beckett produced at the end of his career)—which was intended to pad out (or may we should say 'round out') his short story collection then known as Draff but which was renamed More Pricks Than Kicks. A much catchier and less unpleasant title.

The collection had been accepted by Chatto & Windus in September 1933 but Charles Prentice had wondered whether Beckett had another story he could include since he felt the collection a little thin. Some have described More Pricks than Kicks as a novel-in-short-stories and that's not an unreasonable description since all the stories bar the last one feature the first of his gentleman tramps, Belacqua Shuah. Technically he is in the last story—at least his corpse is—as he died under the surgeon's knife in the penultimate story, 'Yellow'. Not having anything to hand that would do—and having already cannibalised his first novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women believing it unpublishable although it did finally see the light of day in 1992—Beckett decided to dash off something new and feeling that to try to cram in another would disturb the book's flow—he might have called it its "involuntary unity"—he felt his only option was to tag on a "recessional story" at the end and to resurrect Belacqua—literarily—for this purpose. An inspired idea I have to say.

Beckett's writing can be broken into distinct phases. His generally most accessible is his middle period from Watt, through Molloy and Malone Dies to the early plays like Waiting for Godot and Krapp's Last Tape; his later theatre work (following his 1946 epiphany where he realised the way forward "was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than adding") is minimal often with no more than a single character on stage (although he was fond of disembodied voices as in Eh Joe and Footfalls) and the prose of this period is likewise short, frequently experimental employing unusual syntax and difficult to grasp; More Pricks than Kicks belongs to Beckett's early period when he was very much in thrall to James Joyce and it shows although even at this stage he was well aware that he'd never make a go of it on his own if he didn't "get over J.J.". His writing from this period is difficult in another way entirely.

MacGreevyHe apparently struggled with 'Echo's Bones'—on the first of November in a letter to his friend Thomas McGreevy as he was still known then (post-1943 he became Thomas MacGreevy) he said he was "having awful trouble with it" but this is typical of Beckett; he's the most self-deprecatory writer you'll even come across; nothing he wrote was good enough and he made out that writing was a painful experience for him—but by the tenth of that month Prentice had the manuscript in hand—"What a big one!" he responded. "I shall read it with delight this week-end…"—only to have it rejected promptly on the Monday:

It is a nightmare. Just too horribly persuasive. It gives me the jim-jams … People will shudder and be puzzled and confused… I am certain that Echo's Bones would depress the sales very considerably ... the only plea for mercy I can make is that the icy touch of those revenant fingers was too much for me ... Please write kindly.

Beckett, ever kind (he was a very kind man), acquiesced without fuss—which does not mean he wasn't hurt—and publication went ahead of the manuscript as submitted following some minor editing; material from 'Echo's Bones' provided an improved ending to the short story 'Draff' so his efforts weren't entirely in vain. On the sixth of December Beckett did, however, produce a poem called 'Echo's Bones':

Echo's Bones

Asylum under my tread all this day
their muffled revels as the flesh falls
breaking without fear or favour wind
the gantelope of sense and nonsense run
taken by the maggots for what they are

which went on to become the title poem in his collection Echo's Bones and Other Precipitates, published in 1935; too good a title to waste. The short story itself was forgotten about and until now has only been available to scholars.

How to read 'Echo's Bones'? In an entertaining article in The New York Review of Books entitled 'What to Make of Finnegans Wake?' Michael Chabon valiantly tries to explain Joyce's final novel. The book finally appeared in print in 1939 but it had taken him some seventeen years to get to that point. Chabon offers a number of answers to his question—all of which have a certain validity—but this one I'd like to highlight:

(e) Its author's own super-cleverness, the daedalian prison in which Joyce starved his genius, having forgotten that, since a labyrinth is as hard to penetrate as to escape, most of Asterion's intended meals must have failed to make it to the jaws and waiting belly at the labyrinth's centre.

Swap 'Beckett' for 'Joyce' and you could say the same of 'Echo's Bones' assuming you actually understand the above paragraph without having to google 'daedalian' and 'Asterion' (which I did and it didn't help much). In a letter to McGreevy at the start of 1934 Beckett wrote:

I haven't been doing anything. Charles's fouting à la porte [kicking out] of Echo's Bones, the last story into which I put all I knew and plenty that I was better still aware of, discouraged me profoundly […] But no doubt he was right.

Why is the story such a hard read? John Pilling has remarked that at times there are "so many echoes that they seem to multiply to infinity, and yet they are little more than the bare bones of material without any overarching purpose to animate" Mark Nixonand as Mark Nixon, director of the Beckett International Foundation, notes in his introduction:

[T]here is hardly a sentence in 'Echo's Bones' that is not borrowed from one source or another, bearing out Beckett's own statement that he had 'put all I knew and plenty that I was better still aware of' into the story. These references range from the recondite to the popular (Marlene Dietrich, French chansons), and are inscribed in the text both openly and covertly. […] [B]oth on a verbal and a structural level, it harnesses a range of materials, from science and philosophy to religion and literature. As its title suggests, this is a story made up of echoes, of allusions to multiple cultural contexts.

So what am I saying, that 'Echo's Bones' is some kind of showpiece or cadenza? Possibly. Cadenzas are all well and good in small bursts but after a while—and usually not a very long while—we tire of the virtuosity, the clever fingers, and want to go back to something we can hum in the shower. There's no doubt that 'Echo's Bones' was written by a very clever, well-read man. It was also written by a twenty-six-year-old who's just had his first book of fiction accepted—his essay-cum-manifesto Proust had already been published—and maybe felt like showing off a bit. This is pure conjecture of course. Suffice to say what he produced veers from dazzling to blinding in a matter of a couple of paragraphs. We are eased though into the story in typically Beckettian fashion:

The dead die hard, trespassers on the beyond, they must take the place as they find it, the shafts and manholes back into the muck, till such time as the lord of the manor incurs through his long acquiescence a duty of care in respect of them. They are free among the dead by all means, then their troubles are over, their natural troubles. But the debt of nature, that scandalous post-obit on one's own estate, can no more be discharged by the mere fact of kicking the bucket than descent can be made into the same stream twice. This is a true saying.

'Echo's Bones' is forty-nine pages long. The annotations that follow it fill fifty-six pages. Most of these explain literary and biblical quotes and nods (in his review Seamus Deane calls 'Echo's Bones' a "purée of references") or highlight Beckett's fondness for wordplay; there are many hidden meanings in this text. The problem for the contemporary reader—although I expect it would have been no less a problem for a reader back in the thirties who would not have had the benefits of such fastidious research—is that no one bar someone like Beckett will have even heard of most of these texts let alone read them, e.g. Garnier's Onanisme seul et à deux or Chaucer's The Parliament of Foules. Of course you don't always need to know where a reference hails from to make sense of the text—when Beckett talks about "the quick" (as opposed to the dead) most people will be well aware he means the living; some may even recognise the title (it's been used by numerous authors and filmmakers) but few will realise that it originates from any of three passages in the King James Bible and they don't need to know—but typically you do because Beckett is nothing if not a subtle writer and he expects you to pick up on the undertones or maybe overtones would be better since much of the language is highfalutin although not all; he can be base as well.

If you are familiar with any of Beckett's later works every now and then you'll trip over a line of a phrase that sounds familiar like the oxymoronic "womb-tomb" (in one place referred to as "the lush plush of the womby-tomby") which evokes Pozzo's speech in Act II of Waiting for Godot:

Pozzo: They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more.

footfallsBirth and death are often mixed up in Beckett's writing. Beckett told Billie Whitelaw, when she asked him if May in Footfalls was dead, "Let's just say you're not all there." The same is true of Belacqua: he casts no shadow, he cannot see his own reflection (no, he's not a vampire), he can, however, eat and drink, smoke cigars (his pockets are apparently crammed full of them) and—although this was not something he was renowned for whilst still alive he being that indolent—copulate. We first encounter Belacqua following his apparent resurrection (although whether his earthly remains have been disinterred is another matter) sitting on a fence "picking his nose between cigars, suffering greatly from exposure." We learn that he has returned (been returned?) to take part in "three scenes … [a] little triptych" that form the material for this "fagpiece."

He has been enjoying, since his resurrection, "a beatitude of sloth that was infinitely smoother than oil and softer than pumpkins" in the "womb-tomb,"—he was after all named after the lazy man Dante encounters on the shores of Purgatory (Purgatorio Canto IV:88-139) and as Shuah was the mother of Onan we can only assume that in death as well as life he's nothing more than an idle wanker—but has found his "soul begins to be idly goaded and racked, all the old pains and aches of my soul-junk return!" It seems as if the living world, rather than the afterlife, is where his torment is to take place (or at least begin), and he's been brought back for "major discipline". Belacqua, we discover, has been dead for forty days. The number forty in the bible is significant: in a few instances periods of judgment, testing or punishment last forty days (Nineveh, for example, was given forty days to repent, Jesus fasted in the wilderness for forty days and the flood waters didn't disperse until after forty days).

His first encounter is with Miss Zabrovina Privet who bursts onto the scene, literally shooting out of a hedge. She recognises him as Belacqua "whom we took for dead, or I'm a Dutchman" but isn't remotely fazed by his return:

        "How long do you expect to be with us?" said Zabbrovina.
         "As long as I lived" said Belacqua, "on and off, I have the feeling."
         "You mean with intermissions?" she said.
         "Do you know" said Belacqua, "I like the way you speak very much."
         "The way I speak" she said.
         "I find your voice" he said "something more than a roaring-meg against melancholy. I find it a covered waggon to me that I am weary on the way, I do indeed."
         "So musical" she said, "I would never have thought it."

The book is full of witty banter; the same kind we've grown accustomed to in Waiting for Godot, Endgame and some of the less well-known plays. Why exactly it's funny isn't always obvious though. Take Zabrovina's name: her forename has Russian roots ('zabornyj' – 'indecent, course'; 'zabornaja literatura' is 'literature of the fence', or pornography'); privets (which also echo the Russian informal greeting 'pryvet') often are used to form hedges so Zabrovina is a hedge-rambler which I suppose is the rural Irish equivalent of a street walker. Within a few pages her true nature has revealed itself and she's pinned him to the fence turning, metaphorically at least although who's to say bearing mind much of what follows, into a Gorgon: "She tossed back the hissing vipers of her hair, her entire body coquetted and writhed like a rope, framed into a bawdy akimbo…"

Having had her way with him—if he's been sent back to face a number of heroic tests he's not exactly being stretched—she takes him back to her lodgings where she serves him garlic and white wine before, if I'm reading this right, having her way with him numerous more times:

…countless as it were eructations [belches] into the Bayswater of Elysium, brash after brash of atonement for the wet impudence of an earthly state – the idea being of course that his heart, not his soul but his heart, drained and dried in this racking guttatim [drop by drop], should qualify at last as a plenum [a space or all space every part of which is full of matter] of fire for bliss immovable…

Suddenly he finds himself perched "on the lofty boundary of a simply enormous estate, guzzling a cheroot" shedding a tear for his "besotted soul (his misnomer)" when he's hit from behind—a blow to "his eminent coccyx"—by a golfball recently struck by its owner and the owner of the estate itself, the giant Lord Haemo Gall of Wormwood, who wears a tasselled red tarboosh (that would be a fez to you and I):

        "Whoever you are" he cried, "Jetzer or Juniperus —"
        No answer.
         "Firk away" he screamed, "firk away. It is better than secret love."
         "Love" said a wearish voice behind him, "turn round my young friend, face this way do, and tell me what you know of this disorder."

Lord Gall it turns out is sterile and numerous not-especially-subtle-or-clever asides about golf sticks and golfballs ensue. Gall invites him to his home where he lays his cards on the table: Lady Gall must produce a son and heir to ensure that Wormwood does not fall into the hands of Baron Extravas. This conversation doesn't take place in the comfort of his castle but rather up a tree where Lord Gall shoves Belacqua; they spend the afternoon drinking in an aerie. Belacqua is asked if he can rise to the challenge although who can tell why his lordship would demand this of a man he's only just met. Suffice to say, after some verbal parrying, Belacqua acquiesces. An ostrich called Strauss appears and the two men ride on in to the castle where Belacqua does his bit and Moll Gall turns up trumps:

        Lord Gall was downstairs at the time, counting his golfballs. His medical advisers filed in. It was a dramatic moment.
         "May it please your lordship" said the foreman, "it is essentially a girl."
        So it goes in the world.

charon styxThe final third (and most readable part) of this tale takes place at Belacqua's graveside. As he's sitting there "on his own headstone, drumming his feet irritably against the R.I.P." he sees "a submarine of souls" out at sea and a familiar face (if you've read More Pricks than Kicks), the Alba. We are, of course, here supposed to make the connection with Charon's ferry across the rivers Styx and Acheron although he might've been thinking about the Easter Rising of 1916. Meanwhile the groundsman from 'Draff' arrives "fortified with alcohol" intent on robbing Belacqua's grave. In the earlier story he'd never been named but here we learn he's called Mick Doyle. He appears to recognise the man perched on the grave but isn't put off when Belacqua announces, "Fool! I am the body."

        Doyle threw down the mattock and took up the spade.
         "There is a natural body" he said "and there is a spiritual one."


         "I'll lay you six to four" said Belacqua "that you find nothing."

According to the book's annotations six to four were the odds placed on Hamlet's swordsmanship although if you want a good example of how scholars can take a piece of text to pieces and then grind those pieces to dust see this article from The Oxfordian. I can just imagine the amount of fun Nixon and his team had trying to fit all the pieces together here but the danger in treating a text—as so often happens with a poem—as something to be solved and not read is that it ends up becoming even more unreadable than it started out being. Like all writers should, Beckett wrote what he wanted to read; he wrote out of his own experience and interests which were, let's be frank, not to everyone's tastes. He was an academic at heart and really has to be studied before he can be read. Think of 'Echo's Bones' as the literary equivalent of Schoenberg's early twelve-tonal works: it takes a while before you can hear the music.

The story's title derives from an episode in Ovid's Metamorphoses. I'm sure in my childhood I read the story of Echo—thanks to Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopaedia I actually had quite a decent classical education—but I still had to look it up to write this essay. In brief:

Echo was a beautiful nymph, a favourite of Diana, and attended her in the chase. But she had one failing; she was fond of talking, and whether in chat or argument, would have the last word.

One day Juno was seeking her husband, who, she had reason to fear, was amusing himself among the nymphs. Echo by her talk contrived to detain the goddess till the nymphs made their escape. When Juno discovered it, she passed sentence upon Echo in these words: "You shall forfeit the use of that tongue with which you have cheated me, except for that one purpose you are so fond of—reply. You shall still have the last word, but no power to speak first."

From that time forth she lived in caves and among mountain cliffs. Her form faded with grief, till at last all her flesh shrank away. Her bones were changed into rocks and there was nothing left of her but her voice. With that she is still ready to reply to anyone who calls her, and keeps up her old habit of having the last word.

The Echo myth is one that continued to fascinate Beckett throughout his life and disembodied voices as I've already mentioned find their way more and more into his late plays and it was no great surprise to learn what Doyle finds in Belacqua's coffin although in terms of the collection in which it was to be a part it does raise some questions assuming any of 'Echo's Bones' is to be taken literally because this is Beckett at his most fabulistic, not a term one generally associates with him; 'Echo's Bones' is essentially a fairy tale. But what delights is when you find the odd line that reminds you of the stuff he would produce later on, lines like:

        After a long silence, suffered by Doyle as scarcely less than a tribute to his high-class folly, something inside Belacqua said for him:
         "Sometimes he feels as though this old wound of his life had no intention of healing."
         "That sounds bad" said Doyle, "I grant you. Has he tried saline?"
         "He has tried everything" said the voice "from fresh air and early hours to irony and great art."

More Pricks than KicksMore Pricks than Kicks did not sell well. Fewer than 500 copies purchased in the first four months—better than Krapp's seventeen—but only twenty-one copies in the six months after that and some twenty-five in the following three years. It was placed on the Register of Prohibited Publications in Ireland which can't have helped and even library copies were removed. The remaining quires were pulped in two batches in 1938 and 1939 and the author even 'mislaid' his own copy. Chatto lost around a third of their outlay and Beckett's royalties never totalled more than half of his £25 advance. Ever critical of his own work he came to regard these stories—including, of course, 'Echo's Bones'—as nothing more than juvenilia and was reluctant once he'd achieved a level of fame in later years to see the collection come back into print. One can only imagine what he would think about this latest edition despite the love and attention spent getting it ready. In that respect I have nothing but praise for the team involved; it is a lovely book.

One particular review of More Pricks than Kicks jumps out. It was by Edwin Muir for The Listener who wrote:

The incidents themselves do not matter much. The point of the story is in the style of presentation, which is witty, extravagant, and excessive. Mr. Beckett makes a great deal of everything; that is his art. Sometimes it degenerates into excellent blarney, but at its best it has an ingenuity and freedom of movement which is purely delightful.

Trust a poet to get him! Had he read 'Echo's Bones' I've no doubt he would have extended this comment to encompass it. Tim Martin's one star is too harsh, far too harsh. As Julie Campbell notes in '"Echo's Bones" and Beckett's Disembodied Voices':

Many elements of 'Echo's Bones', however, are shared with Beckett's later writings: the strong focus on death and the afterlife; the lament of having been born; the oxymoronic "womb-tomb"…; the torments of living and the simultaneous desire for and dread of non-existence. Belacqua inhabits the story in an "in-between" space, dead but within the living world, recalling those interstitial spaces, where characters are somehow in between life and death that haunt Beckett's work.


The fact that this story did not get published does mean that the very special quality of its humour and strangeness has been shut out of the Beckett canon.

Well now it has been. I still stand by what I wrote in the opening paragraph of this review. If you've read next to nothing by Beckett there's plenty of other stuff you should check out before this unless you're a particular aficionado of Joyce's late work. As far as the prose goes I'd probably start with Murphy and the novella First Love. Don't be tempted by the late prose simply because it's short. Watch the plays first. They're the best way into Beckett. But if in the weeks to come you do chance upon a cheap copy of Echo's Bones it's certainly not a waste of money. Stick on a shelf and maybe get round to it someday when the time feels right. You might be surprised.

My Biggest Lie

Posted: 25 May 2014 03:52 AM PDT


You want your crime to be greater than it is so you can excuse yourself from redeeming yourself. Excuse yourself from the hard work of getting on with your life. – Luke Brown, My Biggest Lie

The first (and, admittedly, only) time I've heard one-time-editor-turned-writer Luke Brown speak he was being interviewed by Nick Higham on the BBC programme Meet the Author. My wife said he sounded nervous. He did. Perhaps he was. Perhaps that's just the way he talks. Suffice to say by this point I'd only got fifty pages into his debut novel My Biggest Lie and could see why he might have cause to be nervous since he—or at least the book's protagonist (must try and remember these don't necessary hold the same views)—had gone out of his way to offend and upset many of his fellow authors plus any members of the publishing industry he might've needed somewhere down the line to get his novel into print. I could only imagine at this juncture what he might've said further into the book about members of the press and the book-buying public but probably nothing good. If he had, good-natured Higham took no offence.

A taster then—editors' apparent opinion of writers:

[W]riters [are a]wful people. Scavengers. Needy little vultures, picking around in creative writing classes, sending in expenses for dinners they had eaten on different dates and in different cities to the events they had not turned up for. Fine artists, the lot of them, experts in cover art. Parasites. Imperiously rude and/or sleazy to editorial assistants. Lazy readers of their own work. Hungry bastards. Reviewers of their friends. Reviewers of their rivals. Making young women cry. Making them sick, Making advances. Not earning advances. Making them pregnant. Making line graphs of Amazon rankings. Sending you these line graphs. Seeking plot and motive in them instead of their own flimsy storylines and characters. Accidentally ccing you into correspondence berating you to another needy little vulture. Being 'glad in some way, that this mistake happened'. Never more than a metre away from the booze table at a book party. Obsequious chairs of literary events until the sixth drink in the follow-up dinner. Quoters of Goethe and Schiller. Owners of The Mammoth Book of German Aphorisms. Twitterers. Shitheads. Carrion-pickers. Slobs. Sociopaths. Laptop-dogs. Wolfes. Woolfs. Carvers. Lushes. Lishs. Gougers. Hacks. Mice. Lice. Writers, they were the worst, the most awful, we pitied them but loathed them more; because if it wasn't for them, the job really would be a pleasure.

It says something about how little Liam thinks about himself that he would feel eligible to seek membership of this band of reprobates. The book he ends up writing, when he's not busy working on the longest love letter in recorded history (mercifully we only get to read a short excerpt), is called My Biggest Lie which is also (confusingly) the title of Luke Brown's book. Lying plays a major part in Luke's book whereas Liam's book ends up being one big lie but I'm getting ahead of myself.

The odd thing about Luke's alter ego is not that he's an incorrigible liar but that he tries to be so honest with his readers. I suppose every liar needs his father confessor, someone he can let down his hair with and that's what I felt like. The question was: Was I going to let him off light with ten Hail Marys and five How's Your Fathers? Not. Bloody. Likely.

All writers are liars. I'm a liar. I'm lying right now: I wasn't on page fifty when I watched that TV programme; couldn't tell you rightly what page I was on but as his wee rants about publishers and authors fall between pages 47 and 50 it had to be somewhere around that mark. I can't help myself. The truth's too ragged for my tastes. Lies have neat, straight edges and 'page fifty' had the right ring to it. People who say lies are messy don't know what they're talking about. They're probably just bad liars.

Liam Wilson, for all he's fibbed, fabricated and falsified frequently over the years, is not actually that good a liar. He lies because it's expedient, accepted—even expected—behaviour, but his heart's not really into it. I suppose this is the problem all writers have. We write to get to or express some kind of truth but we insist on trying to get there through the process of lying through our teeth. When we first encounter Liam his life's in a mess. Had he been a better liar he might still have his girl, his friends and his career or maybe he would've been in prison rather than Buenos Aires. He's there because Liam is actually a decent sort deep down who's perfectly willing to accept the consequences of his actions (if caught out) and in his mind he deserves to be in exile. He cheated on the love of his life and was to some extent responsible for the death of his firm's prize commodity, the Booker Prize-winning novelist Craig Bennett. While it is true he did cheat on his girlfriend he did not kill Craig Bennett. A heart attack killed Craig Bennett although the copious amounts of drugs and alcohol the man ingested in the hours prior to that attack certainly nudged things along. Now whether Liam could've prevented Craig having a heart attack (at least that night) is another matter entirely. And the answer to that question is probably: Yes. He was put in charge of him—although how 'in charge' one man can be expected to be of another is another matter entirely—and didn't do a bang-up job of it. Clearly. Of course the only reason he wound up with such a prestigious client in the first place is because his boss, James Cockburn, managed to get himself defenestrated the day before, quite possibly—accounts differ widely—with the assistance of said client and is recuperating in hospital. So he's not exactly a shining example.

"There is nothing so undignified as an editor who writes," notes Liam but since Luke was an editor in a previous life one can't help but think he's also wagging a metafictional finger at himself; I imagine most novelists get to that point somewhere around the middle of their first novel when they wonder if they're deluding themselves. Whether former editors feel it worse than the rest of us I can only imagine, but there's clearly some of Luke in Liam and probably more than he'd like to admit, but then that goes for the rest of us too. "All fiction is autobiography, no matter how remote from the author's experience the tale seems to be." So wrote the critic Millicent Bell in reference to A Farewell to Arms which is another one of those books where people can't agree on the ratio of autobiographical to non-autobiographical content. I doubt, however, if Luke Brown has been (of felt he was) diary of a superflous manresponsible for the demise of any (in)famous authors recently but like most of us he'll have been through a life-numbing breakup or two; a period of days, weeks or even months where your life's lost its way and you've no idea if you're coming or going. This started me thinking about Saul Bellow's Dangling Man which led me neatly to Turgenev's The Diary of a Superfluous Man. In Exile: The Sense of Alienation in Modern Russian Letters, David Patterson describes the recurring character of the superfluous man in Russian Literature as "a paradigm of a person who has lost a point, a place, and a presence in life: the superfluous man is the homeless man." He goes on to quote from The Superfluous Man in Russian Letters where the authors list the typical characteristics of the superfluous man as being "weariness, boredom, indolence, self-orientation, self-pity and fear." It's the twenty-first century and not Russia so this is how Liam from Lancashire puts it:

Amid the agony of accepting and refusing to accept what I had always known was going to happen [i.e. his girlfriend's going to dump him], I suspect I quite liked the portrayal of me here, the compartmentalised, enigmatic, multi-man. It is a sort of fun being a dickhead, that's why there are so many of us. It wasn't unique to me—did other people really reveal themselves truly to others? Were they better than me or did they just make a better job of pretending to be? I didn't believe I was the only man who was so hungry, so weak.

Aleksandr Pushkin introduced the type in Eugene Onegin, the story of a Byronic youth who wastes his life, allows the girl who loves him to marry another and lets himself be drawn into a duel in which he kills his best friend. Not a million miles away from our Liam, eh?

Why Buenos Aires then? Because Bennett once lived there. Let's be clear here, Liam and Craig weren't livelong BFF's or anything. They met the night Craig died and so literally only knew each other for a few hours but Liam has daddy issues and a connection was made:

Ten hours, whatever others might say, is long enough to come to love a man. In Buenos Aires, where he had written his first novel, I hoped I could wrap myself in his experiences and write mine. It was the only plot I could come up with, an escape and a penance rolled into one…


[U]nless I tell you otherwise, assume I am always crying.

It feels like most of the novel takes place in bars. It doesn't. But it feels that way. I imagined, learning the book was set mainly in Argentina, that that would be the culture I would struggle to get but what I found hardest to relate to was the writer in the book. He's not as bad as his earlier description but he is somewhere in there. I didn't get him and I didn't like him. I didn't like his colleagues. I didn't much care for any of the other writers in the book. Nor did I take to any of the friends Liam made whilst off finding himself or whatever he imagined he was doing. And believe you me, a character—even one who's almost constantly stoned or drunk—has to work hard not to squeeze even a little bit of empathy out of me.

Grief and loss I get and I get that even dickheads feel grief and loss. That their being a dickhead is the cause of much of that grief and loss is neither here or there: pain is pain. By the end of the book Liam's period of mourning looks as if it's coming to an end; he's turned the corner at least. Has he learned anything from it all? That I'm 200px-Charlienot so sure. Being a dickhead's a hard thing to shake off. Just look at Craig Bennett. He was a dickhead until the day he died and James Cockburn, who continues to fill the role of Liam's father figure, leaves a lot to be desired in that regard. Liam manages—by questionable means it has to be said—to find his way back home, even if it isn't quite the home he left, but his associates are the same motley crew so I don't see him not being a dickhead for long.

Fiction is full of loveable losers; affable chumps; the Charlie Browns of this world who never quite get the breaks they deserve and if Liam had been like that I might've had more time for him. As I said earlier, there is a decent bloke inside Liam and maybe if he'd stayed in Birmingham and not moved to London he might've hung onto that:

I'd arrived in London from a small press in Birmingham with a reputation of frugality, integrity and luck. Everyone loves a plucky indie. It made people at the conglomerates trying to poach our successful authors feel good about themselves knowing that we existed, that there was room for us. I was embraced at book parties. Have you met my mate Liam? People thought that I was a nice guy. I cared about writers. Well I always had a lot of compassion but outside of work it mostly overflowed in the wrong directions, to the people who least needed it. To the people who exhibited moral failings, by which I mean the people with the option to. The carnal people, the libertines, the charmers. The lookers, the liars, the reckless. The success went to my head. That's the point of success. I was drawn to the promiscuous and the criminal, like my mentor and the other JC, and who knew London publishing would be such a fine place to find these two qualities?

Was who he was in Birmingham the real Liam or, as he starts to believe, a lie?

It was acid, the taste of the slow digestion of the person I'd pretended to be while the other person grew inside me, eating me at the same time as I was emulating his voice, his turn of phrase, laughing at his jokes. The more lies I told, the more that man grew familiar. He was no longer eating me alive. I was eating him.

In some respect this is a coming of age novel despite the fact the protagonist's turned thirty. Not everyone makes the transition at seventeen and I suspect most of us hang onto our youth for longer than is seemly. Luke tries hard to be funny but I found Liam more funny-sad than anything else. I felt let down by him and by those who aided and abetted him. Fake it until you make it, they say. Easier said than done. You're supposed to learn from your mistakes. I'm not certain Liam has or ever will. For a book that tries hard to be funny—and manages it some of the time—I came away from it rather sad and disappointed. Not in Luke Brown—he acquits himself well enough—but in humanity and let's face it if there's a way people can let you down they usually will. Isn't that the truth of it?


Luke BrownNot much biographical data available for Luke. He grew up near Blackpool, Lancashire, and now lives in London. He was a former senior editor at Birmingham's Tindal Street Press and still does freelance work. His Facebook page reveals little other than the fact he can play both the guitar and football although I suspect not at the same time. Either that or he likes sitting around holding guitars and hanging around football pitches. My Biggest Lie—which Canongate wittily chose to publish on National Tell a Lie Day—is his first novel. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Bed of Coals: an introduction to the poetry of Joseph Hutchison

Posted: 18 May 2014 03:38 AM PDT

Bed of Coals

My wife, happening upon my journal, said:
"Writers are crueller than normal people."
—Joseph Hutchison, 'March 10: "From an Unmailed Letter"'

W.S. Merwin opens his 1968 essay, 'On Open Form' with the following statement:

What is called its form may simply be that part of the poem that has directly to do with time: the time of the poem, the time in which it was written, and the sense of recurrence in which the unique moment of vision is set.

Reading that essay prompted Joseph Hutchison to write his own, 'Aspects of Time in Poetry' in which he draws a distinction between three kinds of time: empirical time, subjective time, and duration. It's a thought-provoking article. Time, of course, is linear. Our perception of it may not always be accurate but tempis fugits on regardless. Memory handles time in its own perverse ways. As Joe puts it in 'This Day':

that time scatters, memory gathers up—
keepsakes, relics, talismans.

This is what makes his 1995 collection Bed of Coals (which has just been brought back into print by FutureCycle Press) such an interesting—by 'interesting' I mean 'challenging'—read.

Unlike many poetry collections Bed of Coals has a storyline. It's a multi-layered, discontiguous and spare one and one I struggled with at first; sadly—and masculinely—I'm a terribly linear person. In an author's note at the start of the book Joe tries to explain the book's structure:

Two different voices tell the following story. One belongs to an anonymous narrator, whose poems include my main character's name—Vander Meer—in their titles. The second voice is Vander Meer's own, and it surfaces in poems drawn from his "blue notebook" and in others written at a later date; the titles of these works are set in italics to differentiate them from the narrator's. Vander Meer's "blue notebook" entries, dated from March 22 of one year to March 21 of the next, are presented in the order Vander Meer himself chooses to read them. Readers who prefer plot to character are free to reconstruct the progress of Vander Meer's crisis by reading the "blue notebook" poems in chronological order.

On reading through the collection I wondered about the third set of poems though—I couldn't quite see how they fitted into the sequence—and so asked Joe to clarify how these were to be interpreted:

The other poems written by Vander Meer are—so my conceit goes—written as he contemplates the blue notebook poems. He is in dialogue with them, and with the person he was when in that downward spiral. These poems flesh out more of his story.

So, to clarify, we have Vander Meer's story narrated from the outside (what I'm going to call 'the objective poems'), his own thoughts as he's immersed in the events recorded in a blue notebook (the subjective poems) and a third set where he looks back from having survived said events (the reflective poems); at least that's my reading of them. I've no issues with any author providing instructions on how to read his or her book—perhaps more should—but once we have them we're on our own for better or worse. This multi-layered approach is certainly different but it does screw with your general perception of time since the poems aren't presented chronologically in terms of the events they describe or chronologically as they were written. I tried to work my way through the collection sequentially but lost the thread and so decided to read the poems in three blocks since I couldn't work out how the objective and subjective timelines crossed.

As I was describing this organisation to my wife she reminded me of Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook and its structure. From the novel's blurb:

Divorced with a young child, and fearful of going mad, Anna records her experiences in four coloured notebooks: black for her writing life, red for political views, yellow for emotions, blue for everyday events. But it is a fifth notebook—the golden notebook—that finally pulls these wayward strands of her life together.

Lessing in the book's preface claimed that the most important theme in the novel is fragmentation; the mental breakdown that Anna suffers, perhaps from the compartmentalization of her life reflected in the division of the four notebooks, but also reflecting the fragmentation of society.

Razzle - John Ransom


The objective poems

There are thirteen poems in this group and although undated they appear to be presented in chronological order.

This isn't prose and so we have to get by on scraps of biographical information and attempt to build up a picture. Vander Meer is a copy editor who aspires to be "an auteur". As a child he struggled learning how to swim but did manage to learn how to float. It's a strong and simple metaphor for a man whose life is going nowhere. He doesn't even drive himself to work at this point; he gets the bus and when he gets off he struggles through the masses in much the same way he struggled through the water when trying to do the breast stroke. This is where we meet him in the opening poem of Bed of Coals musing to himself, "every skill / becomes second nature." I suppose there's some truth to that. They say you never forget how to ride a bike but when I swim nowadays I have to think about it; I'm not a natural swimmer and I, too, like Vander Meer, nurse some painful memories of learning to swim which I never did until I was about twelve and I only ever mastered the breast stroke.

Vander Meer's colleagues say he's not himself.
His clear, blue sky prose is all fog lately:
"Couldn't sell steaks to a starving man!"


We're into the second poem now. He's distracted; his mind's not on the job. Perhaps a leave of absence would help although we're still none the wiser regarding what's up with him. The third poem takes us into one of his dreams; dreams, mostly bad, form a major part of this collection (twenty-six poems if I counted right). He knows he's dreaming because he's found himself replacing Cary Grant in North by Northwest. This poem does set the time frame because when he wakes he finds there's "a second-rate actor / in the White House" which means we're talking the eighties. (Ronald Reagan was in office from January 20, 1981 – January 20, 1989.) The eighties was the Me! Me! Me! generation. It saw the rise of the yuppie. Binge buying and credit became a way of life. Labels were everything. Tom Wolfe dubbed the baby-boomers as the 'splurge generation.' It was a bad time to be seen as anything other than successful.

This dream itself is not as significant as the one we hear about in the next poem 'VANDER MEER IN TRANSIT' in which, on the bus again, he overhears a couple talking:

"I took a night course on dreaming,"
she said. "If you dream it once,
it's not prophetic. It's just working out
                    "And what if you dream
the dream more than once?"
she nodded, "it's time to pay attention."

This reminds him of a recurring dream in which his genitals are ripped off in the shower, a dream he first had "two years before his marriage failed." He decides to call in sick.

In the next poem 'ORPHIC VANDER MEER' Vander Meer's back in bed dreaming. This time it's about having sex with someone whose marriage is collapsing. And also her faith it seems. Who is this person? Clearly not his wife.

In 'VANDER MEER'S REVISION' we're at the halfway point, August—the sequence runs from March to March remember—and he's alone during a heat wave. It's a year on from when his wife told him:

"You want her? Your little bitch? Go
to her! Go to your bitch!"

And yet it's not as simple as that:

                                 So he left,
not explaining he was leaving for no one.
How could he speak that unreasonable truth?

What's going on here? He's cheated on his wife but he's not leaving her for this other woman? It also suggests that it took a year for their marriage to get to this point, that it failed a full year earlier but something—momentum? habit?—kept things running.

In 'VANDER MEER HOLDING ON' he now has a car, a "new / used Ford" and is sitting outside what used to be the family home watching his daughter on her swing, the growing distance between him and his family symbolised by the last two line of the final stanza:

But his daughter, sailing higher, shrieks
with joy...and he grips the wheel—
white-knuckled Vander Meer! Shutting his eyes,
hearing his wife laugh and call, "Hold on!
Honey, hold on tight!" Her every push
pushing him farther out....

Notice the pun? Pushing father out? This distance is tackled again in the next poem, 'VANDER MEER CRYING FOWL':

               Thus, her voice

on the phone—its hunger repressed
uneasily into choice etiquette: a proper
knife-and-fork tenderness.

Assuming this is his wife we're talking about here. I'll come back to this.

More dream imagery in 'SAINT VANDER MEER AND THE DRAGON':

                      Oh, he fears
sleep! For she comes to him in sleep.
"What I must do I will do," she whispers.

Things are starting to get to Vander Meer in 'VANDER MEER AT SUNDOWN':

Thinks Vander Meer, All light's
receding from me like the galaxies.

In 'VANDER MEER AT SEA' it's still August. Which August though? A year after the break up? He happens on "a note / in her firm cursive," directions he's given her over the phone at some point. But who is the "her"? No, I think this is before the breakup of his marriage. I think this is him with the other woman and she's the one breaking up with him. So maybe the voice on the phone a few poems back was his lover. Hard to be sure. In the bio on his blog Joe writes:

In the all the years of my writing life, I've responded to and aspired to a quality in poetry that I can only call "clarity." Not that I'm interested in clarity at the expense of honest complexity; I despise those bland accounts of near-death sailing "into the Light." Light is not always benign: it blinds as often as it offers revelation, as anyone who's grown up in my part of the world would know. That contradiction, if it is one (it could be that contradiction exists only in the mind), fascinates me continually.

Light's a major theme in this collection. It feels like hardly a poem fails to mention it at least in passing: moonlight, "broken light", "the grey TV light", "shallow light", daylight, "the effects of light", "town lights", lightning, twilight, "morning light", "cloudlight", "festive lights", "windowlight", "ripples of light", "headlights". It's something I've noted in my own poetry, light as a metaphor for truth. I think it's a good metaphor even if it is a bit obvious. Sometimes it's very clear what's going on with Vander Meer but at other times not as much; not every poem is equally illuminated. The problem is, by 'clarity' Joe doesn't mean 'transparency'. In an interview he expanded on the above:

[C]larity isn't accessibility. (I'm not sure what accessibility means, because what's accessible to one reader may not be accessible to another. So when we talk about accessibility, we're getting into statistics: what percentage of readers understand this poem on first reading? On second? On third? Etc. It's a useless term.) Clarity is also not an absence of ambiguity. Blake is notoriously ambiguous, but no poet writes with more clarity.

So—I've said what clarity isn't but not what it is. I would say that my sense of clarity goes back to the medieval meaning of the word—"glory" or "divine splendour." … Moments of clarity come through the senses but carry us beyond them.

So, perhaps rather than 'clarity' what he's looking for in his poems—and therefore what we should be looking for—are insights, little epiphanies, flashes. Of course when Joe reads these poems he knows exactly what they're about but as much as he's trying to allow us inside his head he doesn't always manage it. And, oddly enough, neither does the omniscient narrator. But here what's going on seems reasonably clear:

"I can't," she said. It was simple—
like a blunt gaff to the chest. "I just
can't.... Not right now. Not yet,"
she said. And he said he felt the same:
"It's my kid," he lied, thinking—
I am going to die....

In 'VANDER MEER AT BOTTOM' we can see him beginning to fall apart. For once he's lying in bed and not dreaming:

Sunken like a river rock, Vander Meer reads
the ripples of light that passing cars
scrawl across his bedroom wall. No
breathing beside child's
next door.

Here's probably as good a place as any to ask: Why Vander Meer? It's an odd name. Why not Smith or Jones? In an e-mail Joe explained:

[T]he character's last name is Vander Meer; I give him no first name. The name itself means "from the lake (or sea)"—an underwater man. I didn't know this when I named him, though; the name just surfaced (!) one day in what became the eponymous first poem. I think I was influenced by Louis Simpson, whose poems I was reading at the time; he has a harrowing one called 'Vandergast and the Girl', and in the original edition I included lines from that poem as an epigraph from that poem: "What do definitions and divorce-court proceedings / have to do with the breathless reality?"

"Sunken like a river rock"—this really struck me because I have a whole series of poems I refer to as The Drowning Man Poems which revolve around a man who's submerged in emotions, who feels like he's drowning but never actually drowns. The word 'drown' appears four times in this collection and there are eighteen references to water as well as numerous references to seas, waves, floods, rivers, lakes and streams.

It's on nights like this he pours himself into his blue notebook:

of wandering mindlessness...images
gushing forth, lovely and terrible
by turns....

This has to end somewhere. And it does in 'VANDER MEER'S DUPLICITY':

Vander Meer at the mirror, mouth
propped wide with a gun barrel
index finger, thinking:
"easeful death"...playing
homo ludens to the hilt. Who was it
said, a good poem always takes
the top of one's head off?

Emily Dickinson said, "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry," in case you wondered. Homo Ludens or Man the Player is a book written in 1938 by Dutch historian and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga. It discusses the importance of the play element of culture and society. Is Vander Meer a player? It depends what you mean by 'player'. He's not a player as in a powerful participant in some major concern, a man to be reckoned with. Nor do I think the definition in the Urban Dictionary fits here either:

A male who is skilled at manipulating ("playing") others, and especially at seducing women by pretending to care about them, when in reality they are only interested in sex. Possibly derived from the phrases "play him for a fool", or "play him like a violin". The term was popularized by hip-hop culture, but was commonly recognized among urban American blacks by the 1970s.

But he is still playing. What Huizinga says at the start of his book is noteworthy though:

In play there is something "at play" which transcends the immediate needs of life and imparts meaning to the action. All play means something. If we call the active principle that makes up the essence of play "instinct", we explain nothing; if we call it "mind" or "will" we say too much.

There are numerous theories about play but any man who's having an affair is playing with fire. You tell me one kid who doesn't like to play with fire though. Games have rules, even the games kids play where they make them up as they go along, and what's the point of a game if there's not a winner? And if there's a winner there have to be losers.

It turns out though that the blue notebook is not the only thing Vander Meer's been writing since he found himself alone; there's also, apparently, "a cracked memoir he calls Bed of Coals".

And so ends what I'm calling the 'objective poems'. They're bullet points really. They bring us to an ending but endings are only convenient stopping points for storytellers; there's always more to tell. Maybe when we read the poems from the blue notebook things will become clearer.

Tryptich I - John Ranson


The subjective poems (the poems from the blue notebook)

There are twenty-three of these beginning with one dated March 22nd. The tone here is quite, quite different. For example here's the first poem in its entirety:

Stop Slaughtering Baby Seals or No More Nukes—
pathos of loving what we can't love enough.
"When they split up," some voice at the office,
"he joined The Alliance to Protect Snail Darters.
She worked door-to-door for Z.P.G." Today,
following a night of smashed glasses
and food-slopped floors, our three-year-old
stared down my bitter breakfast silence:
"You're not screaming now." My eyes burned wet
as an oil-slicked dolphin's.... Where are you,
Committee to Preserve Self-Devouring Spouses?
Yet I have kissed her mouth most tenderly—
mouth, breasts, curve of belly...cavorting
in a surf of sheets. And later, breathing
to sleep in the depths, I've dreamed in slogans:
No More Nukes! Stop the Slaughter! Save the Whales!

Quite the rant and confusing as hell. The people at the office are talking about a breakup in the past tense and yet Vander Meer's still having breakfast with his kid in the morning (who we now know is about three) after what looks like a serious row with his wife the night before. So clearly—okay, maybe not so clearly—his work colleagues are talking about some other couple.

On June 20th Vander Meer's clearly still at home with his wife. A poem entitled 'Lifting My Daughter' provides the evidence:

As I leave for work she holds out her arms, and I
bend to lift her...always heavier than I remember,
because in my mind she is still that seedling bough
I used to cradle in one elbow. Her hug is honest,
fierce, forgiving.

On June 21st he writes a poem called 'Long Distance Call'. Since no one is named in these poems and the rest of the players are all women—his wife, his daughter, his lover—you really do have to pay attention to the context to work out who the 'shes' and 'hers' are. I'm assuming here he's talking about his lover because he talks about one breath…

drawing us into a room
where we lie moving

slowly at first
tongue to tongue
in the house of longing

They're still there three weeks later:

July 9

            from the Blue Notebook

In bed we listened
to sleepwalking rain
drawn to the window
by your wetness

And they're still at it on the 15th:

Too treble for ears, a gracenote's summons
feathered through our brains, piped us
to the pied guestbed quilt. Spreading towels
against stain, she baptized my bald homage
in water holy past pun or punishment. Our method—
pure rhythm; as a rosined bow thrills the gut
to gladden the soul, so the lingua franca,
pentecostal stammering of our hearts
renewed us.

They know what they're doing. They know other people will be affected—"[s]pouses, friends, hurt families"—but now is not the time to think about all that; they're caught up in The Game (hard not to think about Cocteau's Les Enfants Terribles here). It's noteworthy that they adopt the rhythm method of birth control even though she sounds like a lapsed Catholic. It's perhaps worth mentioning that in Joe's ordering of the collection these poems are presented in reverse order, from the height of the affair reading back to its beginning.

By August 8th the passion seems to have died down:

Yet our words are clinical,
sobering. We've sworn off love,
taken the cure...and toast
ourselves with chilled mineral water—

The affair would appear to have lasted a month which is backed up by what we learn later in one of the reflective poems, 'Snapshots':

That month's like a peach cut in half
Even the deep ragged wound is sweet

although in 'Fullness' he talks about five weeks:

Living on beer and coffee, we
burned off ten pounds each in half
as many weeks (in love, the body
grows lean to feed the heart).

We know from the objective poems that the breakup happens sometime in August but none of the dated poems from the blue notebook of that period deal with it although from what I remember of my own first breakup that's not that surprising; real life issues get in the way. By September 23rd the reality of his situation is starting to hit home though:

September 23

            from the Blue Notebook

Cinching my belt to the fourth
notch—and still it's loose!
(How many weeks now
since I've touched you?)

These early poems are quite detached. The reality of what's happened has hit him but only on an intellectual level. By December 22nd he's starting to wallow; it is the Christmas period after all and a hard time for the newly separated and divorced:

                            I'd like to breathe,
but can't. My jaw goes stone at the hinge.
Say what I feel? All words are trash
in my throat's choked swash;
emotion's current will not flow—

By January he's starting to become self-pitying. And his Valentine's Day poem is dark:

Sworn vows gone into the ground with your love;
from us the world inherits nothing but dust.

Indeed February's a bad month. No less than four poems. As March comes round he's starting to realise how useless his poetry is:

                                      Am I cruel,
then? Draining our lives into language
where even joy is suffering...? My love,
I suffer words for the normal joy they redeem—
and therefore hope they'll make you suffer:
you, kinder than my heart can stand.

The poems in this section are a mixture of lyrical and narrative. Only their dates really provide any context. We have roughly six months before the breakup and six months afterwards. Yes, they do fill in some of the details but it's hard to be sure.

Nervous Apparition - John Ransom


The reflective poems

There are twenty-seven poems in this section and it's impossible to know in what order they were written. The first 'Fighting Grief' is helpful. It tells us that his lover was married at the time of the affair. I'd misread the January 29th poem, assuming when Vander Meer referred to "her husband" he was referring to himself in the third person. This is what was so confusing, not knowing which woman was being referred to but I don't suppose it's unreasonable for him to miss both his wife and his mistress. What is curious in this poem is that he says he's fighting not guilt as one might've expected but "grief". What is he grieving? The end of his marriage?

'Lethe' provides some clarification. It's describing something that happens in April, so a couple of months before the affair:

"You pulled back," said his wife. "You
were passionate, then—just gone."
The sky curved above their house like a tree,
ash or willow, thick-leaved, many-branched.
She said, "Is there something wrong?"


He thought, What could be wrong?

By the time he responds his wife's dozed off. He's been reprieved. In Greek mythology, Lethe was one of the five rivers of Hades It flowed around the cave of Hypnos and through the Underworld, where all those who drank from it experienced complete forgetfulness. Lethe was also the name of the Greek spirit of forgetfulness and oblivion, with whom the river was often identified.

The poems in this section are more level-headed than those in the blue notebook. They're not, however, detached reportage as in the objective poems. One of the most moving is this one:

Pausing Outside My Apartment

Sun must be filling the room.
One thin ray is streaming
from the peephole.

Daylight and dust.

You can feel the earth
turning under you at times.
The roundness of anguish.

Daylight and dust.

It's like a dream.
The key turns my hand.
I open my life and go in.

This poem more than any other in this collection struck a chord with me. Although I wasn't to blame for the breakup of my own first marriage there was a point before we split up that the reality of my situation hit me. This was how I expressed it at the time:


One day he tried too hard and broke it.
He patched it up
and it still worked,
though not as well.

The wheels still went round.

No one noticed any change
till one day it fell to pieces
and they all wondered why.

27 June 1982 – 23 September 1982

The first date is when I wrote the poem. The second was the day my wife left me. I believe very strongly that all poetry is completed by its readers. There will be some people who're reading this just now who have never been married and have never even broken up with a girl or boyfriend. They've never experienced a pivotal moment like this. Reading on I came across 'Detour', a prose poem I suppose although I've never been good at differentiating between flash fiction and prose poetry, which I also related to. Vander Meer's driven miles to sit outside this woman's house. He's listening to the radio or trying to:

The radio's garbled music crackles in and out of its channel. No use twisting the knob: something inside is loose—a broken connection....

"Love," he said, "is a way of being. It includes emotions. Attitudes. Values. It includes ideas. This is why we can't repress love. It absorbs the repression, which changes the relationship but doesn't destroy it."

I click off the radio…

After he gets to the woman's house—we learned in the June 3rd entry in the blue notebook that it's a long drive, "a hundred miles [from] what's left of home"—all is dark so he leaves a note and as he's driving away he thinks (presumably about his wife and not this other woman): Something inside is loose. … Something inside is broken. This is exactly how I felt with my first marriage. Actually when I read this piece the first time I misread the last line. I read "Something inside love is loose. Something is broken." That's how I felt.

Just as I wrote my marriage poem months before the actual official breakup Vander Meer starts making entries in his notebook. In the poem 'On Opening the Blue Notebook' he writes:

When I picture you, I hear
such gears engage—as if thought
were a kind of wheelwork, routinely
spinning dreams into images,
love into dreams....

Interesting that both Joe and I would compare a marriage to a machine, and one that can break down.

Of course looking back it's easy to misremember things. We see that in 'Recalling the Solstice' when he writes:

Grass and junipers grey with frost
just before dawn. The dark grey too,
with a mist drifted off the river.
(In language it seems symbolic,
but out my window it was only cold
cloudiness turned up hauntingly

over night.)

and also in 'A Box of Snapshots'. As he looks at a photo of him standing in the shadow of a willow tree he thinks:

[I]t's me as I am
in the willow tree's shadow, me
in the shade of my parent's house—
but lit by a knowledge so bright
I have to shut my eyes to see.

One might think when we reflect we become more level-headed and indeed the poems in this group are calmer and more reflective but there's also a danger that the imagination will take over. I'm no brain scientist but the evidence is building: memories and imaginings are two sides to the same mental function whatever you want to call it, cognition I suppose. If we're not careful we attribute meaning to things that essentially were meaningless acts in the first place which is not to suggest they were not emotive acts.

The title poem comes next, 'Bed of Coals', which is also, remember, the title of his "cracked memoir". It's set in June and in it he's a carny; he runs The Calypso:

                                                            thirty cars held to a hub
by hydraulic spokes whose festive lights flash
as the motor drives it all around.

It's a place full of activity and noise and yet he describes it as the eye of the storm, an oasis in all this chaos where he starts "to hear her breathing beyond the noise". This is similar imagery to that used in 'Drunk Again in the Dark Grass' where he writes:

For once I want to listen
past the waves. To fall silent,
let moonlight soak me to the bone!

He's not a carny, he's a copy editor. For once this is not a dream because he tells us right at the very start that he can't sleep; he's tossing "like a flame on [a] bed of coals." Obviously this isn't the memoir. Perhaps, however, this is where he got the title for the memoir.

'Fullness' is an interesting poem since clearly Vander Meer's lost much getting to this point. The second half reads:

                           I keep
trying to swallow the fishbone
moments of the past—as if
I could live on loss.
Yet it isn't loss,
but fullness recalled
to fullness again: my heart
no starveling, though it hurts—
aches like a bulging net
I strain to raise: memories
hauled up over and over, quick
and seething in the drowning air.

I have to say I've read these few lines over and over again. I feel they may well be pivotal but I'm not sure I get them. It's an awkward sentence which doesn't help. Try reading it parsed as prose:

Yet it isn't loss, but fullness recalled to fullness again: my heart no starveling, though it hurts—aches like a bulging net I strain to raise: memories hauled up over and over, quick and seething in the drowning air.

'Beyond Sorrow' was another poem that reminded me of one mine. Joe writes:

In the crowd a girl's face
not yours but eyes
like yours


enough now
to love you in other faces
and feel my heart silently rise
inside me

I wrote:

When we broke up
I wondered where he'd go:

He went to look for me
in other women.

I think it's not unlike what happens when your wife falls pregnant. Suddenly there are these pregnant women everywhere as if it's a fashion thing and your wife's the trend-setter. When you no longer have access to a loved one, can no longer touch her on a whim or see her naked suddenly that's what you want and that's what you look for, more of the same. You forget all the reasons why things didn't work out with her. You want to press RESET and do it all over again and maybe this time it'll work out.

'The Voice of Reason' tries to be heard:

The error, of course, is thinking
there's a way to live your life,
as one might "drive a car." Life
is what drives you. Such a stinking

shame...having so little control!
And yet all the time resisting it—

September comes round in 'This Day', the final poem in this group and the final poem in the collection and where do we find Vander Meer?

On the corner, anachronistic in mid-September,
a girl in jogging shorts...tanned legs
glistening with sparse, honey-pale down,
her thighs strong, smooth as buttered rum.

How to keep from staring through her to find you?

September when? Not the September following the August when his wife told him to go. No, this is the September after that most likely. A year and a bit on. His life has fallen to pieces. He's played the game and lost. He's hit bedrock. He's stuck a gun in his mouth and now he's ready to get back on the bike again. Too many of us define ourselves through other people, through our parents, our spouses, our heroes. Is history going to repeat itself?

Skeltz2 - John Ransom


The collection as a whole

After having chopped up this collection to suit my ends—albeit with the approval of the author—I then went back and reread it from the beginning in the order he had chosen. It all boils down to a single word: intent. How do you read a single Joe Hutchison poem let alone an entire book of them?

Joe has a few things to say on this subject of intention. From his blog:

There may be many other good reasons to read, but I don't see how any reader can pretend that the author's intentions are irrelevant. They are always the substance and the structuring motive behind the work. – A Conversation in Progress II

Surely the primary purpose of reading any work is to understand its author's intention (again, broadly conceived), in the hope of better understanding our own. – A Conversation in Progress

[W]e owe the authors we care about the duty of intentional engagement. If they're going to speak to us, we have to bring them our questions: we have to inquire about their intentions and look to their texts, their lives, and their historical periods — and, of course, our own honest responses to their work — for help. Otherwise it's all just a frivolous game. – A Conversation in Progress

So what's Joe's intent here? In his essay 'I Have Seen the Future and It Is Prose' Joe writes that he believes that "poetry … exists in order to express those complex areas of the individual psyche that ordinary prose … is not designed to express" and in this interview:

Mindfulness is another word for love. It's passionate and purposeful. It engages. If we think about what it's like to fall in love, we'll notice that it disarranges our lives. All the old habits and routines break down!


Mindfulness is what poetry is all about, of course. Poetry is the result of the poet reclaiming awareness from habit and routine and putting the result in words that can help a reader do the same thing. The poet's long dead, but through engagement with the mindful poem, the living reader can reclaim awareness in his or her own life. Poetry is a kind of sympathetic magic.

And in 'Fists and Flashing Eyes':

[A]n authentic reading of an authentic poem influences the reader's idea of reality …Reading it is a dangerous activity. For if each new poem, each new imaginatively structured byte of language, influences our experience of the program — why, individuals might actually come to believe that their subjective experience of the world is more real than the one the information society's selling.

Intent is clearly not a simple thing. The problem is made clear in the first quote when he uses the adjective 'complex'. Complex things are, by their very nature, hard to express is simple terms or when they are they lose much in the translation, e.g. E = mc2. Human emotions can be similarly reduced— fear, joy, love, sadness, surprise, anger—but these simplifications are just as unhelpful. Emotions have to be experienced. And even then they can be hard to pin down. I'm almost fifty-five and I still don't understand why I've done half the things in my life. So why should Joe (or his proxy Vander Meer) be any different?

I only had one question when I first opened this book. It was a rather vulgar one: What's the heck's this all about? I refined it quickly enough and soon I had a whole ... what is the collective noun for questions? 'shitload' I think … some of which I've managed to answer above. But one I haven't been able to answer is: What was Joe's intent? I sat down with the intention of understanding as much of this text as I could. What I discovered was that I was not alone in thinking the way I do. Joe—assuming there is some autobiographical element to this collection—and I have been in some of the same places or similar enough. I've never put a gun in my mouth but I have hit rock bottom.

In his essay 'Plains Light' Joe puts forth the proposition that all writers are influenced by their sense of place with the possible exception of Ezra Pound—"[t]here's no trace of Idaho in Pound's poetry"—but Glasgow's a million miles away from Denver (actually it's 4375 miles) and I have to say I imposed my own environment on the poems. Never, not for one second, did they make me think of anywhere but an abstract here—mentions of "Oregon's coastal pines", "a shaggy pasture / in Nebraska" or "the Pacific breeze" slipped past me and it wasn't until I went back through the book specifically looking for them that I gave the notion of place a second thought—although I think that's to their advantage. Marriage is a universal concept and there won't be a country on the planet where someone's not cheating on their spouse right this minute.

Memory is collagelike. Mine's a dog's breakfast if I'm being honest. But an honest recollection is never going to be neat. It's going to be kluged together from misremembrances and imaginings with the odd bone fide fact thrown in for good measure like the fact that his wife's iron's a Sunbeam (there's got to be something about light going on there). Of course the things we forget to remember are trivialities (to us) like what we looked like at the time. Vander Meer's description of himself is "passably human, almost alert" and that's it. There's a lot we don't ever find out about Vander Meer, we know he's "no Christian" but basic stuff like how old he is is bypassed; we learn that he once owned a VCR and has seen Victor Victoria but he never sees fit to mention his daughter's name. This is, of course, typical of most poetry but I would've liked just a bit more exposition here. What, for example, are we to make from his "80 proof adolescence"?

On the whole though the poetry here is very accessible—I'm talking about individual poems here, many of which have already been published on their own—and there's a lot to enjoy in this collection although it does require time spent on it which most readers won't be willing to do. Their loss you might say and perhaps but I don't think the ordering of the poems will help many. Since I'd agreed to write about the collection I was committed to getting to the bottom of it. Few readers will be as driven. But that doesn't mean you'll waste your time with this book. Far from it. And just because the poetry is accessible does not mean it's superficial. The Syrian poet Adonis has reportedly said, "Real poetry requires effort because it requires the reader to become, like the poet, a creator. Reading is not reception." This chimes with something Joe's old English teacher told him and which he's clearly taken on board:

She insisted that poetry, if read with intense imagination instead of simply being registered and sorted like data in a well programmed computer, changes the way we experience the world. Themes, symbols, the techniques of prosody, all are secondary to the fact of the poem as a structured experience. "The reader's responsibility," said Mrs. Van, her flashing eyes taking in the whole classroom full of college-bound faces, "your responsibility is to live through that poem with as much imagination as you can muster."

Readers with some imagination and the right baggage will find much here they can relate to. And if, like me, only one poem really calls out to you I don't think Joe will be unduly disappointed.

You can read a selection of poems from the book here.


JoeAspensOffCenterCrop300Bed of Coals is Joseph Hutchison's third full-length collection and was originally published in 1995 by the University of Colorado Press. It was selected by Wanda Coleman as the winner of the 1994 Colorado Poetry Award. The cover art was created by California artist John C. Ransom and it's from his site I've borrowed the illustrations for this essay; they are not a part of the book. 

In total Joe has published some fifteen collections of poems, including Marked Men, Thread of the Real and The Earth-Boat. He co-edited, with Andrea L. Watson, the FutureCycle Press anthology Malala: Poems for Malala Yousafzai, proceeds of which benefit the Malala Fund to support girls' education. He makes his living as a commercial writer and as an adjunct professor of graduate-level writing and literature at the University of Denver's University College. He and his wife, yoga instructor Melody Madonna, live in the mountains southwest of Denver, in fact he's lived nearly all his life "on the western margin of the plains, between the gnarled wall of the Rockies and the Colorado flatlands."

Used poetry

Posted: 11 May 2014 05:51 AM PDT

There are three difficulties in authorship: to write anything worth publishing, to find honest men to publish it, and to find sensible men to read it. – Charles Caleb Colton

I think it's time someone put things into perspective. A while ago I had a poem rejected because it appeared in a comment I made to someone online. Okay, in the strictest sense, it is now in the public domain (which is how they found it) but seriously since when does that count as published? How many people bar the blog's owner will have been bothered to read down through all the comments and seen my wee poem? And let's say that this webzine, the webzine that just rejected my poem, hadn't been as diligent and had gone ahead and published my poem in a couple of months' time what are the odds of someone coming along and saying, "Hey, I think I saw that poem in the comments of a blog I read a couple of years back."

Sites differ on what they consider 'published':

  • Poetry: We cannot consider anything that has been previously published or accepted for publication, anywhere, in any form. Work that has appeared online is considered to have been previously published and should not be submitted.
  • Rattle does not accept work that has been previously published, in print or online (we do not consider self-publishing to personal blogs or Facebook as publication).
  • Qarrtsiluni does not consider written work or video that has been previously published in online or print journals, books or anthologies. We do, however, consider work that has only been posted on an author's blog, personal website, or personal channel on a video upload site such as YouTube or Vimeo, because we think such online sharing constitutes a vital part of the creative process for a growing number of writers and filmmakers, and we want to encourage that.
  • Sentinel Poetry Quarterly: Generally we discourage submissions of previously published work. If we feel strongly about a previously published work we may solicit it. If your work has been published elsewhere and you feel it has not been given the exposure it deserves, and you feel strongly about it, by all means submit it, but please mention where and when it was first published.

Of course they're under no obligation to publish anything. They can and do make up the rules as they go along. Some sites only publish poems under a certain length, some want nothing but religious poetry whereas others are particularly interested in poetry written in traditional forms. None of that is wrong. People are free to publish what they want and if they don't want to publish what they consider "previously published" then so be it. All I'm saying is that we need to be realistic about all of this. There are millions upon millions of websites out there. God alone knows how many of them publish poetry but there will be thousands and, as was always the case with small press print journals, most won't survive more than a few issues and are lucky if more than a handful of people look at the magazine who aren't in the magazine themselves or related to or friends of someone whose work has appeared therein. There are sites where my poems have appeared and presumably (by that I mean 'hopefully') been read by more than just the site's owner and me and now they're gone. Ask yourself: when was the last time you trawled through an archive of poetry looking for the hidden gem?

I had five poems published in writers bloc back in 2011. The site's no longer there and so your chance to read those poems has gone. Pfft! I can't offer them to most sites because they're been "previously published" and so that's that. I tried using WayBack Machine but I got a message: Page cannot be crawled or displayed due to robots.txt. I can access their robots.txt file but who cares; the poems are gone. So, what's to stop me offering them elsewhere and maintaining they're never been published?

Here's a poem that has been published online by Gloom Cupboard:

As Is

This is a
used poem.
It is in
good condition,
is complete and

No words are missing and
though they have
all been read before
the previous owner
was careful not to
read too much into them.

The poem will make sense
but it must
be said it doesn't
quite mean what it used to
and it may require
some reader attention.

What you see
is what you
get but what
you end up with
is completely
up to you.

16th February 2008

BBC-Radio-1Poems don't go off. No matter how many people have read them before you get to them they're as fresh as the day the poet completed them. That a poem can be found using a search engine is neither here nor there. No one's going to look for it. It's been read by the only dozen or hundred people who are ever going to read it and it'll never be looked at again. And that's just wrong. Imagine if Radio One played a record once and that was your lot; you never got to hear that track again unless you had the foresight to tape that broadcast. I, personally, don't see anything wrong with an author trying to get as many people to read his or her work. I've a box full of old print magazines going back to the seventies full of perfectly serviceable poems, poems that deserve to be read again. Quite a few were published more than once because back in the day I didn't have a clue and just kept sending out the same stuff. I got a letter once, responding to a submission, from the editor of Trends telling me that he'd seen one of the poems I'd sent him in another journal which took me aback; I was so struck by the fact someone had read one of my poems and remembered it. But he took the poem anyway.

Okay let's play devil's advocate here. Let's say one of my poems has appeared in one of my blog posts. Has it been published, I mean really published? Or has it been self­-published? There are those who say that self-publishing's not real publishing because there's no gatekeeper and if that's the case then why are they making such a fuss about it? Just saying.

Eileen Tabios, publisher of Meritage Press and editor/publisher of the review Galatea Resurrects, had this to say over on the Poetry Foundation site in an article appropriately entitled Just Get the Poems Out There:

One of the healthiest elements about poetry blogging is how poetry blogland more accurately mirrors the nature of Poetry than has traditional canon-making poetic machinery. There have always been more poets and poems than those marble-ized in Norton anthologies, "best of" anthologies, et al. . . . There is no centre—or there are many centres—in poetry.

I have a number of friends who are poets and they're usually friends with a bunch of other poets who are in turn friends with some more poets and many of them are friends with me. Considering the huge number of poets out there I don't actually feel that I'm in contact with more than a handful, not exactly a clique but there's a lot of common ground; for one thing most are British. I would also guess that most of us are maxed-out when it comes to online friends. We can't follow all the ones we've subscribed to and their Twitter feeds just pour by. No one's looking for more to do than they already have to do. We like it when new stuff comes our way but it usually comes our way via one of our existing friends and so, yes, the group expands but that expansion is offset by those who've decided they've had their fill with the blogosphere and have gone off to give real life another go.

So here's all I'm saying: Let common sense prevail. If you're happy simply to see your poem in print and whoever reads it is whoever reads it then fine—I guess any reader who isn't you is a bonus—but if you've written a good poem (hell, it might even be a great poem)—then doesn't it hurt to know that that's it, the only other time it might see the light of day is if you include it in a collection and how many people are going to be champing at the bit to read that? Probably the only ones will be the ones who read the poem when it was first published anyway. Such is the state of modern poetry.

billy-collinsThere's a very interesting article here concerning print runs. Everyone knows that poetry doesn't sell. A print run of 200-300 from a traditional publisher appears to be about the norm unless you're Billy Collins. That's nothing. So what if another two or three hundred get to read it online as well. That's still nothing. And if there happens to be an overlap, maybe a couple of those who bought the book, do you honestly think they'd feel cheated to encounter the selfsame poem online? Might they not think: Hm, I've seen this poem before. If some other editor thought it was worth publishing maybe it's a better poem than I first thought. Maybe I should read it again a bit more carefully. It's not like a painting. Two or three hundred people already own a copy of that poem. That's the nature of poetry.

The whole copyright thing is all fine and well when you're being paid for permission to use your work. I can understand a magazine being a wee bit fussy if they're forking out cash even if the only other people to read that poem beforehand might've been a couple of dozen Brits three or four years earlier. But most online magazines don't pay. Yes, it's still technically publishing but why not think about it as promoting? A poem is like a review. It demonstrates what that poet can do and is an encouragement to readers to seek out more and maybe fork out a few quid on a chapbook or something.

If you run a magazine all I'm asking is that you think about revising your submission guidelines. Maybe refuse any pre-published within a set time frame, say six months or a year. The face of the Internet changes constantly. Hell, a week on it's barely recognisable. And we only read what's in front of our faces because that's all we have time for. Give poets a second chance, that's all I'm saying.