- A History of Books
- The Year of Magical Thinking
- The H-Bomb and the Jesus Rock
- The optics of poetry
- Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?
- You & Me
- The Wall
- An arranged faith
- The Waterproof Bible
- Twilight of the Eastern Gods
- The Awakening
- Seven years on
- The Appointment
- Smut: Two Unseemly Stories
- Rue End Street
- The Book of Unknown Americans
- A Slight Trick of the Mind
- The Millstone
- Poetry and Zen
- Echo's Bones
- My Biggest Lie
- Bed of Coals: an introduction to the poetry of Joseph Hutchison
- Used poetry
Posted: 26 Oct 2014 05:07 AM PDT
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.
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:
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 remember 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:
Posted: 19 Oct 2014 04:47 AM PDT
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:
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:
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:
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:
Many times throughout these texts Murnane pauses to remind the reader that what they're reading is a work of fiction. For example:
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 I'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:
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:
Here's an example:
The 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:
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):
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.
Gerald 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.
Posted: 12 Oct 2014 05:33 AM PDT
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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."
On 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 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.
Joan 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,
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.
Posted: 05 Oct 2014 03:08 AM PDT
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 booksworld.com 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.
It'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.
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.
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.
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.
So Ralph heads off to the park:
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.
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.
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'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 booksworld.com article had a few good points to make. It said the book explored such themes as:
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.
Booksworld.com quotes the author as saying:
And in his interview he adds:
Manderino 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 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.
Posted: 28 Sep 2014 04:07 AM PDT
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:
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:
Communication's hard enough when people are trying to be understood. Why go out of our way to make our readers' lives difficult?
In 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:
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:
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.
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:
That poem unlocks a whole series of memories. It's also the key to understanding this later poem:
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:
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:
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:
"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.
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:
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:
Posted: 21 Sep 2014 03:30 AM PDT
Diseases desperate grown,
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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 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. He'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.
Dave 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.
Posted: 14 Sep 2014 04:06 AM PDT
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:
We 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:
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:
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" 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:
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?
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—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:
But let's not be too quick to trivialise Powell's book. In a more recent interview following the publication of You & Me Royal Young gets Powell talking about the lost art of the conversation:
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?
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.
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.
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:
Padgett 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.
 'An Improbable Business: PW Talks with Padgett Powell', Publishers Weekly, 20 April 2012
 John L. Kundert-Gibbs, No-thing is Left to Tell: Zen/Chaos Theory in the Dramatic Art of Samuel Beckett, p.80
Posted: 07 Sep 2014 04:34 AM PDT
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.
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:
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 last-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.
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:
(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.
We 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:
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 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
Posted: 01 Sep 2014 04:55 AM PDT
I wrote a poem back in 1996 about beliefs:
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:
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.
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:
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:
Stephen King talks about "the boys in the basement":
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:
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':
I'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.
Posted: 24 Aug 2014 04:40 AM PDT
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:
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":
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:
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:
He 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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
One 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:
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?
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 NATURE OF BELIEFS
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:
Or what about Rebecca and her mother's bracelet?
Or what about these weird beliefs?
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:
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 to 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:
What is also notable from this article is how much the book polarised opinions:
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 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.
Posted: 17 Aug 2014 04:00 AM PDT
Am I a gangster or murderer?
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):
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 sat 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:
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:
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:
In an interview when asked if he was happy during his stay at the institute Kadare responded:
In his Paris Review interview he expands on what he means here when he says he was "saved":
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:
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.
In 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:
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:
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:
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 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.
Posted: 10 Aug 2014 04:57 AM PDT
Canongate Books have just republished Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening. In her e-mail to me their publicist wrote:
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:
A very brief summary then:
From the 1982 film adaptation The End of August
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:
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:
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:
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
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:
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."
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.
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:
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
To be fair not all reviews were negative. C. L. Deyo in his review wrote:
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:
"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:
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:
That 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: A Re-Awakening (PBS documentary, transcript)
Loss of Self and the Struggle for Individuality in Kate Chopin's The Awakening (need to download PDF)
The Awakening - Multiple Critical Perspectives (only an extract but looks like an interesting book)
The Criticism Surrounding the end of Kate Chopin's The Awakening (only read once you've finished the book)
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)
Posted: 03 Aug 2014 03:54 AM PDT
PAT. PAT. PATITY PAT.
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 be 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.
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.
SHORT PAUSE FOR MOMENT OF SOLIDARITY
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.
Posted: 27 Jul 2014 05:22 AM PDT
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:
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:
I 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:
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:
But it doesn't end there:
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:
When 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.
It's an oppressive life. Her neighbour, Herr Micu, has been summoned, too, and ordered to record her movements:
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:
This list doesn't include her stepfather who she seduces:
In a totalitarian states there's not much comfort to be had. People drink and have sex. Herr Micu once says to Paul:
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:
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:
The basic storyline is conveyed in easy-to-read—albeit
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?
In 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?
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.
Posted: 20 Jul 2014 03:43 AM PDT
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"
Appearances 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:
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, ventures 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:
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:
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.
Okay, 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:
As things go Mrs Donaldson is lucky:
Their one fault? They're both regularly behind with the rent.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
Is 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.
Posted: 16 Jul 2014 05:58 AM PDT
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:
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.
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:
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:
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 weakness 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 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).
Posted: 06 Jul 2014 04:40 AM PDT
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:
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
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:
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:
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:
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.
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:
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:
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.
Apparently 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:
Of course now we have another term to mull over: slow thought.
And on slowthoughtmovement.com:
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.
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:
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 possible....it'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:
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:
Posted: 29 Jun 2014 03:50 AM PDT
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.
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:
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.
I 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!"
'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:
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:
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:
Needless to say her dreams don't come true, at least not the ones she had when she was seventeen:
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".
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
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:
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:
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:
There weren't many entries when I first checked but here's how Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's story begins:
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.
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.
Posted: 22 Jun 2014 04:03 AM PDT
"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.
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":
There are three storylines all containing at least one bona fide mystery to be solved:
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:
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:
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:
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:
In 'A Scandal in Bohemia' Watson describes the high regard in which Holmes held Irene Adler, a retired American opera singer and actress:
It 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:
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:
Hence 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:
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:
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:
Agreed but I've already addressed this. We're told that the Holmes in the books was never the real Holmes:
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:
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.
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."
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." 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." 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." 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.
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:
The 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:
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 pair 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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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:
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'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.'
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:
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:
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
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.
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.
 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.
 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
 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
 Suhasini Tapaswi Feminine Sensibility in the Novels of Margaret Drabble, p.33
 Pat Williams, 'The Sisters Drabble', The Sunday Times Magazine, 6 August 1967, pp.12-15
 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
Posted: 08 Jun 2014 04:00 AM PDT
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
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
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 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.
A 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.
Across worldly maps
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:
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?
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:
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.
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:
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:
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
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.
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
I'll leave you to meditate on it. Or maybe one of the others.
Posted: 01 Jun 2014 04:09 AM PDT
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.
He 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:
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':
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:
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:
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" and as Mark Nixon, director of the Beckett International Foundation, notes in his introduction:
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:
'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:
Birth 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:
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:
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):
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:
The 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."
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:
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:
More 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.
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':
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.
Posted: 25 May 2014 03:52 AM PDT
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:
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) responsible 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:
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:
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 not 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:
Was who he was in Birmingham the real Liam or, as he starts to believe, a lie?
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?
Not 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.
Posted: 18 May 2014 03:38 AM PDT
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':
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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,"
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
And yet it's not as simple as that:
So he left,
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
Notice the pun? Pushing father out? This distance is tackled again in the next poem, 'VANDER MEER CRYING FOWL':
Thus, her voice
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
Things are starting to get to Vander Meer in 'VANDER MEER AT SUNDOWN':
Thinks Vander Meer, All light's
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:
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:
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—
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
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:
"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:
This has to end somewhere. And it does in 'VANDER MEER'S DUPLICITY':
Vander Meer at the mirror, mouth
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:
But he is still playing. What Huizinga says at the start of his book is noteworthy though:
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.
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—
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
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
They're still there three weeks later:
And they're still at it on the 15th:
Too treble for ears, a gracenote's summons
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,
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
although in 'Fullness' he talks about five weeks:
Living on beer and coffee, we
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:
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,
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;
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,
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.
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
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
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:
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:
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
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
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
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
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
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 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:
'Beyond Sorrow' was another poem that reminded me of one mine. Joe writes:
In the crowd a girl's face
When we broke up
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
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,
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?
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:
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:
And in 'Fists and Flashing Eyes':
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:
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.
Bed 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."
Posted: 11 May 2014 05:51 AM PDT
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':
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:
Poems 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:
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.
There'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.
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