Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Commentary on commentaries


Never explain what you do. It speaks for itself. You only muddle it by talking about it. – Shel Silverstein

I’ve mixed feelings about commentaries. I’ve said before that a poem which needs notes to explain it—e.g. Beckett’s ‘Whoroscope’—is basically a bad poem; the poem should stand or fall on its own merits. I do talk about my poetry in some of my articles but they’re not really commentaries. I don’t think I’ve ever dissected a poem for everyone to see. Perhaps I should.

I do what I do mainly for newbies. When I was starting out I hated the fact that everyone seemed to want to keep the hows of writing to themselves. I suppose I get it but it still annoyed me that I had to go it alone. I know writing is a private thing but it’s not as if I was asking them how they had a wank! I like that Kona Macphee produced a downloadable companion to her poetry book Perfect Blue which I reviewed here. In my article I included her poem ‘The earthworm’ which I’ll post again to save you looking it up unless you want to read the whole review:

The earthworm

one imagines
an earthworm dreaming
butterflyit might become a
butterfly or even
just Chuang-

share its
urge to fashion
finer dirt from dirt,
to pass what
it passes

the ground
encompassing what’s left
of life’s green surge
and ebb, what’s
left of

This is what her companion has to say about the poem:

I like worms. They can eat dirt and make progress at the same time. They're great instructors in the fine art of just-getting-on-with-it.

This poem is about as close to haiku as I seem to get (which is not very close at all, really). Instead of fixed numbers of syllables, it uses fixed numbers of words in each line (which, from my point of view, feels pretty weird; normally when I use fixed line lengths, they're measured by the number of stressed syllables and the actual number of words doesn't matter at all).

Chuang-Tzu is the ancient Chinese philosopher who famously dreamed of being a butterfly, and then awoke to wonder if he was real, or simply the butterfly's dream.

Tim Love has a similar site here devoted to his pamphlet Moving Parts which I also reviewed here.

Part of the thing I have against commentaries is that they change how a person reads a poem. A poem is after all a collaboration between poet and reader and what they make of it will be unique to them. To then come along and say, er no, the poem’s actually about this isn’t really fair because that’s what I’ve made out of it in my capacity as reader plus I have access to all the other stuff that surrounded the writing of the poem which no reader need be privy to.

That said after I’ve read a poem as a poet myself it’s always interesting to learn a bit more about the process, something I might be able to take away and try myself. And by ‘after’ I mean a long time after. Once you’re basically done with it. I’m a student of Beckett as everyone knows and one of the great pleasures with Beckett is studying him. Sometimes I suspect he’s more fun to study than to actually read. One particularly good book I would recommend to fellow scholars is Theatre of Shadows: Samuel Beckett’s Drama 1956-1976 by Rosemary Pountney because Theatre of Shadowsshe spends a great deal of time looking at his early drafts and analysing how Beckett wrote. Her breakdown of Lessness is particularly illuminating. But I’d like to highlight something more familiar, Krapp’s Last Tape.

The play was written in 1958—quickly, probably between March and April—so he would’ve been 52 at the time. In the final version the curtain rises on "[a] late evening in the future." It is Krapp’s 69th birthday and he hauls out his old tape recorder, reviews one of the earlier years—the recording he made when he was 39—and makes a new recording commenting on the previous twelve months. What we learn from Pountney is that “the future” once had a rather specific date. Typescript 3 reads as follows:

April 1986. A late envening [sic] in 1985 the nineteen eighties.

In Typescript 4 this has become simply “in the future”. In April 1986 Beckett would’ve been eighty and obviously seventy-nine in 1985. This is typical of the way Beckett worked gradually “vaguening” the text moving from the specific, from him most often, to the Everyman. In Typescript 2 the protagonist’s name is “Crapp” by the way; prior to that he was simply “A”. It’s interesting to see what was going through his mind as he wrote but is it helpful or ultimately distracting? Of course by the time I read Pountney I was very familiar with the play but I do have to say that a part of me doesn’t really want to hang onto the details I’ve learned. Krapp is not Beckett. He is of Beckett but he is not Beckett.

When I produced my poetry collection This Is Not About What You Think a while back I chose the title because it was the perfect title. I’d always imagined my first collection would be called Reader Please Supply Meaning but I’m saving that for my next one. Both titles, however, underline the fact that it’s up to the reader to decide what these poems are ultimately about and that’s all right. As I’ve said already it is interesting to know the background to a poem but that knowledge changes it. I left it out for a reason. It’s called poetic licence: “The freedom to depart from the facts of a matter or from the conventional rules of language when speaking or writing in order to create an effect”.

Let’s have a look at a few from the collection:

Father Figure

This is the floor beside my bed
where I kneel to talk to God.
If I press my ear to the floor.
I can hear Him talk to Mum.
About me. It is always me.

I know what God looks like.
father-and-sonHe looks just like my dad.
I heard him tell my mum:
"In this house I am God."
I heard that through the floor.

Now I only pretend to pray
because I don't want my dad
to really hear the things I think.
Now he's not sure I'm so bad.
I don't want him to know I am.

I just want my dad to love me.

It’s a common enough image, the child kneeling beside his or her bed, hands pressed together—“God bless Mummy, God bless Daddy”—but the simple fact is I never did. I was brought up by god-fearing parents—that is true enough—but they never actually taught me how to pray. Ridiculous, I know! So all the praying stuff in the poem is made up. I never even attempted to talk to God until I was a grown man. The image of me lying with my ear pressed to the bedroom floor—which was directly about the living room—is accurate but that’s not where I heard my dad say, “In this house I am God.” That was years later. He was in the kitchen and I was standing in the hall. I’m not actually sure who he was addressing. I don’t think it was me directly. I get the feeling my mum and probably my brother were there but again I have no idea what prompted his declaration although I do know the scriptural precedent for him feeling he had the right to say that and mean it. Now the lines:

I can hear Him talk to Mum.
About me. It is always me.

suggest strongly that it’s Dad doing the talking whereas the reality was it was Mum talking to him. You see my dad’s name is also James so when I heard her say, “Jimmy,” I assumed she was telling on me—“Our Jimmy did this… Oh, Jimmy did that…”—when actually all she was doing was addressing her husband by name. More fabrication. The sentiment of the poem is an honest one. I did want my dad to love me. I always wanted him to love me for being me though and not for being what he wanted me to be and the truth is he did always love me but he never got me and that was the best I could ever hope for.


Hammer"Just because you have a hammer
it doesn't make you a joiner."
My father had his way with words.

So I took a handful of nails
and boarded up my heart
against him and against the world.

And safe on the inside I yelled:
"Screw you!"
but he was never one for puns.

This isn’t even about my dad. I was corresponding with a girl at the time—I believe her name was Connie—and she was talking about her relationship with her father so I wrote her this poem. Not sure why I didn’t include a dedication—not like me—but I didn’t and so that’s how the poem stands. My own dad was a mechanic—he looked after machines in a cotton-spinning mill and later in a wool-spinning mill and apparently there’s a world of difference between them—and the truth is he really didn’t have a way with words but he could quote scripture and often did. I might not have been writing about my dad but I was accessing the same sort of feelings I had towards him. I understood where Connie was coming from which is why the poem worked so well.

True Love II

My father had a heart transplant.
Years ago, before I was born,
        doctors took
        out his broken heart

        and gave him a machine instead.
The strange thing about this machine
        was it was
        powered by sadness.

Of course he was always just Dad,
        but, when I discovered the truth,
        at first I
        hated the sadness

        then I became thankful for it
        because as long as I could see
        brokenhearthim be sad
        he would be with me.

And so I made it my job to
        make him the saddest dad in the
        whole wide world.
What else could I do?

My dad never had a heart transplant. He did have two heart attacks and the second one killed him. But this poem isn’t about him. It’s not even me talking. It’s my daughter. “How the hell were we supposed to know that, Jim?” I hear you say and the simple answer is: You weren’t. I excluded that from the poem. Of course this is a metaphorical poem and the simple fact is my daughter makes me both proud and happy—although I’d be prouder and happier if she read my damn posts more often—but ask yourself: “What would I do if my dad got fitted with some weird mechanism powered by sadness?” It’s preposterous—it’s meant to be preposterous—but if you loved him—if you really loved him—wouldn’t you go out of your way to make him as sad as you could? How many kids nip their parents’ heads about their salt intake or their cholesterol or the need to exercise; they make them miserable but they do it out of love because they don’t want them to die and miserable living parents are better than happy dead ones. Love’s a funny thing. And then there are the kids who run wild and break their parents’ hearts and you’d think they were deliberately trying to make them sad.

Silent Echoes

My father lost his hearing
        soon after he retired
        or rather he gave it up.

At first his hearing became
        selective as befits
        a man of a certain age

        but over time he lost all
        interest in listening and
        his ears forgot how to hear.

He wrapped himself in silence
        like an old comforter
        to protect himself from us

        and from our onslaught of words.
Sundays I'd sit with him
        swanand we'd feed the swans on the

        pond outside of the hospice.
From a distance I'm sure
       we looked like some old couple.

        with nothing more to say and
        no desire to say it
        which was not far from the truth.

My dad did go deaf. He also went blind. He never went into a hospice. He died in the front room of his house. It wasn’t even his usual chair. He did go with my mum to feed the swans in the pond behind the sports centre. They’d come up out of the water and take the bread straight from his hand. Nipped him more often than not but my dad had tough hands, like leather, so it didn’t bother him too much. I don’t recall Mum ever feeding the swans after he died. I certainly never went with her. Or maybe she just started feeding the swans on the river as it would’ve been easier for her to reach on her own. Can’t imagine her not feeding something.

Sometimes when I used to visit my dad Mum would be out—she couldn’t let a day go by without a tour of her precious second-hand shops—and Dad would just be sitting there in silence: no TV, no radio, no audio books (he never really took to them). He had indeed wrapped himself in silence but I don’t think it was much of a comfort to him. And we certainly never went on at him although when we were kids we did—I have the audio tapes to prove it—and so I do suppose in that respect the peace and quiet had a certain belated comfort to it. That’s the thing about life: it comes in chunks, hard to chew and difficult to swallow.

Are these poems any clearer now or have I spoiled them for you? I can’t read them without knowing all the stuff I know. I knew my father for forty-odd years. Just the word ‘dad’ is hugely evocative but then ‘dad’ means something to everyone and there’ll be people out there who read these poems and go: “My dad was nothing like that.” Well, good! Hopefully when you say that you mean he was better and not some homicidal maniac. At least my dad wasn’t that.

I say I’m not an autobiographical writer and I still stand by that. Like all writers I use what material comes my way. I’ve loved several women in my life and I’ve been around people who’ve been in love, I’ve watched TV shows and films depicting people in love and read books about love and so I’ve built up a composite picture of what ‘in love’ means and who knows you might feel exactly the same as I do about love and you might feel the same about your dad and your mum and maybe, like me, you never had a pogo-stick growing up and never learned to skate but if you didn’t you can still imagine what it was like but imagining’s not knowing; don’t expect it to be. And even now you know the things I’ve told you, you don’t know. You weren’t there. Make the poems your own.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

The Bell Jar


I felt very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Of all the mental illnesses that we’ve labelled the one I expect most people imagine they’ve got a handle on is Depression. I, myself, have suffered from depression-with-a-capital-d since I was a teenager but the more I read about other people’s experiences the more I think the following is true: If you’ve met one person with depression you’ve met one person with depression; I’ve heard the same said of sufferers of autism, Asperger's, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's. You would think being a depressive I’d’ve approached this book with a degree of empathy—and I did, I did—but almost from the jump I realised I didn’t get the main protagonist. If I didn’t know better I’d say the author hadn’t researched her subject too well but, of course, as this is a thinly-veiled account of Plath’s own life and she committed suicide not long after the book’s not exactly ecstatic reception, I can’t lay that one at her door. All I can say is she wasn’t me and thank God I wasn’t her.

I struggled with this book. I found it dated and that’s fine—it is of its time and were it an historical novel written today I’m sure its author would be lauded for her commitment to accuracy—but society’s moved on; a lot that was accepted as the norm in the early sixties is quite unacceptable nowadays. Attitudes to women for starters although we’re still working on that. As she puts it:

So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about as numb as a slave in a totalitarian state.

This still happens but now we regard it as abnormal behaviour and the societies and organisations that sanction it as backward. It’s easy though to see where the seeds to Esther Greenwood’s breakdown come from though:

If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I'm neurotic as hell. I'll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days

The_Bell_Jar_Harper_71Society at the time imagined a woman would want nothing more than to be a wife and mother and maybe keep the writing on as a hobby, something to submit to the parish journal. Oddly enough despite being a male I understand exactly the pressure Esther was under; I grew up in a working class household in Scotland where even going to university was still considered an odd thing to do.

The pressure to conform is a universal one and is a constant theme in modern Young Adult novels. And that’s really what this book is (Emily Gould in her article for Poetry Foundation agrees with me). I’m not using this as a disparaging term however and I’m not sure anyone today would object with Catcher in the Rye being reclassified as a YA novel (which is the book Robert Taubman in The New Statesman compared The Bell Jar to). On one level it’s a classic Bildungsroman. Professor Linda Wagner-Martin, in her essay, The Bell Jar as a Female ‘Bildungsroman’, writes:

Concerned almost entirely with the education and maturation of Esther Greenwood, Plath's novel uses a chronological and necessarily episodic structure to keep Esther at the centre of all action. Other characters are fragmentary, subordinate to Esther and her developing consciousness, and are shown only through their effects on her as central character. No incident is included which does not influence her maturation, and the most important formative incidents occur in the city, New York. As Jerome Buckley describes the bildungsroman in his 1974 Season of Youth, its principal elements are "a growing up and gradual self-discovery," "alienation," "provinciality, the larger society," "the conflict of generations," "ordeal by love" and "the search for a vocation and a working philosophy."

Janet McCann’s book on the subject argues the very opposite, “tracing Esther’s change from apparent knowledge and self-confidence to ignorance and uncertainty as the apparently open horizon shrinks to a point,” which is true up to a point but the point is that Esther survives the experience and (presumably, hopefully) goes on to have the happy and fruitful life of her choosing. Plath, herself, referred to the book as a “potboiler” and an “apprentice work” so I don’t think one should fret too much over descriptions. The real test is: Is it still—allowing her the credit that it was originally—a good read?

belljar_lThe first half, Esther in New York, was, frankly, a bit girly for me but it’s clearly important to see Esther in the company of “normal” women. Had the hero been a male and it’d been a men’s fashion magazine—do such things even exist?—I would’ve also found it equally off-putting. Just not my cup of tea. Once we moved into the book’s second half I found myself more interested; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) is one of my favourite books which IMHO wipes the floor with this book. Could twelve years make such a difference? Then again we’ve since had Girl, Interrupted (1993) and Prozac Nation (1994) and, of course, The Bell Jar is going to start to feel tame. Just after I finished reading this book I watched The L-Shaped Room which was released the year before (that would be 1962) and was granted an X certificate by the B.B.F.C.—its tagline was “Sex is not a forbidden word!”—but anyone going to see it looking to be titillated would be sadly disappointed. In both The Bell Jar and The L-Shaped Room things that are discussed openly these days—lesbianism is a side issue in both—are skirted around here but, for its time, I can see why young girls would be drawn to the book if only to read the section where Esther finally does have sex and it’s about as erotic as the single coupling in the dark that we get treated to in The L-Shaped Room.

The treatment of mental health has changed radically but, electroshock therapy aside, the second half of the book focuses less on her treatments and more on what she’s doing when not being treated. This is a saving grace because loneliness and confusion haven’t changed since the dawn of time. This is the start of Esther’s initial meeting with Dr Gordon:

I had imagined a kind, ugly, intuitive man looking up and saying “Ah!” in an encouraging way, as if he could see something I couldn’t, and then I would find words to tell him how I was so scared, as if I were being stuffed farther and farther into a black, airless sack with no way out.
        Then he would lean back in his chair and match the tips of his fingers together in a little steeple and tell me why I couldn’t sleep and why I couldn’t read and why I couldn’t eat and why everything people did seemed so silly, because they only died in the end.
        And then, I thought, he would help me, step by step, to be myself again.
        But Doctor Gordon wasn’t like that at all. He was young and good-looking, and I could see right away he was conceited.
        Doctor Gordon had a photograph on his desk, in a silver frame, that half faced him and half faced my leather chair. It was a family photograph, and it showed a beautiful dark-haired woman, who could have been Doctor Gordon’s sister, smiling out over the heads of two blond children.
        I think one child was a boy and one was a girl, but it may have been that both children were boys or that both were girls, it is hard to tell when children are so small. I think there was also a dog in the picture, toward the bottom—a kind of Airedale or a golden retriever—but it may have only been the pattern in the woman’s skirt.
         For some reason the photograph made me furious.

Bell Jar, TheThere’s a scene not too dissimilar to this in The L-Shaped Room—Jane’s not got mental problems but she is pregnant and unmarried—and although the doctor there is also a perfectly decent individual you can tell there’s a gulf between the two of them and the main problem is one of gender; neither women conform to what society expects of them. This is how Esther’s interview with Dr Gordon ends:

When I had finished, Doctor Gordon lifted his head.
         “Where did you say you went to college?”
         Baffled, I told him. I didn’t see where college fitted in.
         “Ah!” Doctor Gordon leaned back in his chair, staring into the air over my shoulder with a reminiscent smile.
         I thought he was going to tell me his diagnosis, and that perhaps I had judged him too hastily and too unkindly. But he only said, “I remember your college well. I was up there, during the war. They had a WAC station, didn’t they? Or was it WAVES?”
        I said I didn’t know.
         “Yes, a WAC station, I remember now. I was doctor for the lot, before I was sent overseas. My, they were a pretty bunch of girls.”
        Doctor Gordon laughed.
        Then, in one smooth move, he rose to his feet and strolled toward me round the corner of his desk. I wasn’t sure what he meant to do, so I stood up as well.
        Doctor Gordon reached for the hand that hung at my right side and shook it.
         “See you next week, then.”

I found an article in The Guardian entitled ‘Sylvia Plath: reflections on her legacy’ in which a dozen women talk about Plath’s influence on them. Not one man? I don’t get this. Sylvia Plath is a writer, not a women’s writer. She wrote a book, not a women’s book. Granted men don’t come off too well in The Bell Jar but they’re not all irredeemable bastards; most, like the good doctor above, are simply products of their time doing what they see others doing and assuming that’s what’s expected of them too. But then that’s what the women were doing. And it doesn’t look as if any of them are particularly happy with the world in which they live but although individuals change the world most individuals don’t imagine they could ever change the world and so never try.

The fiftieth anniversary of the book’s publication has just passed and a right kerfuffle’s there’s been over the new cover used by Faber & Faber. There’s a full discussion here but I’d like to highlight one paragraph:

The-new-cover-for-The-Bel-001"It should be possible to see The Bell Jar as a deadpan younger cousin of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, or even William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. But that’s not the way Faber are marketing it. The anniversary edition fits into the depressing trend for treating fiction by women as a genre, which no man could be expected to read and which women will only know is meant for them if they can see a woman on the cover," writes Fatema Ahmed. And I admit, she has a real point here. This 50th Anniversary edition does give the illusion that Plath's work is suited to the airport books section at Tesco, and definitely—we would never see Joyce or T.S. Eliot or Yeats sitting along those shelves. In fact, "books by men" are simply not marketed in this way.

This is a problem. Personally I don’t find the book cover particularly objectionable; it’s just not very apt.

It is true, this book’s lost a lot of its power. If books had been classified back in the sixties then I’ve no doubt whatsoever that this would’ve received the equivalent of an X certificate. The French film Jules and Jim received an X rating in 1962; that was changed to a PG rating in 1991. And that’s how I’d rank The Bell Jar. I’ve no idea if my daughter’s read the book. I know her mother has—she read it in the early eighties—but I do wonder if she passed it on. It’s a book that’s beloved by many and I can see mothers wanting to share the experience with their daughters as something special and the daughters being underwhelmed by it. I reread Catcher in the Rye when I was about thirty-five and was so disappointed by it.

the-bell-jar-movie-poster-1979-1020203401The book has been filmed (in 1979) and some kind person’s uploaded a copy to YouTube. The quality’s not great but it makes interesting viewing. If you’re keen you can see it here until someone makes a fuss about it. The VHS tape was rated R, so the American equivalent of the old X certificate. What can I say about it? Marilyn Hassett—the director’s girlfriend at the time—tries hard but everything’s against her. She apparently read fifteen books on Plath in preparation for the role but the script only pays lip service to the novel. That it would be different to the novel is fine—just compare the film adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Kesey’s book (they both work on their own terms)—but the script plods along. You can read Jane Maslin’s less than glowing review of the film (which she wrote for The New York Times) here. In part:

The scenes that are supposed to trigger all the trouble—Esther's confrontations with her mother (Julie Harris) and her strangely sadistic editor (Barbara Barrie), a gratuitously sleazy orgy with a disk jockey (Robert Klein)—are appallingly flat, neither explanatory nor disturbing.


The script, by Marjorie Kellogg, is full of overwrought extremes, even though Mr. Peerce directs virtually all of it with an inappropriate evenness. The editing of the film is so choppy it calls constant attention to itself. The music, by Gerald Fried, is pretty, and so are the costumes, by Donald Brooks.

To be fair I didn’t really feel the book dealt with the build-up to Esther’s collapse as well as it might have—she seemed pretty together to me during the first part of the book—and this was where the film could’ve done the book a huge favour but it dropped the ball in the first act. I read passages like

        The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence.
        I knew perfectly well the cars were making a noise, and the people in them and behind the lit windows of the buildings were making a noise, and the river was making a noise, but I couldn’t hear a thing. The city hung in my window, flat as a poster, glittering and blinking, but it might just as well not have been there at all, for the good it did me.

in the book but I really didn’t realise how much she was suffering. In the book, for example, Esther goes to a party and a guy won’t take no for an answer. On getting back to her hotel this happens:

At that vague hour between dark and dawn, the sunroof of the Amazon was deserted.
        Quiet as a burglar in my cornflower-sprigged bathrobe, I crept to the edge of the parapet. The parapet reached almost to my shoulders, so I dragged a folding chair from the stack against the wall, opened it, and climbed onto the precarious seat.
        A stiff breeze lifted the hair from my head. At my feet, the city doused its lights in sleep, its buildings blackened, as if for a funeral.
        It was my last night.
        I grasped the bundle I carried and pulled at a pale tail. A strapless elasticized slip which, in the course of wear, had lost its elasticity, slumped into my hand. I waved it, like a flag of truce, once, twice....The breeze caught it, and I let go.
        A white flake floated out into the night, and began its slow descent. I wondered on what street or rooftop it would come to rest.
        I tugged at the bundle again.
        The wind made an effort, but failed, and a batlike shadow sank toward the roof garden of the penthouse opposite.
        Piece by piece, I fed my wardrobe to the night wind, and flutteringly, like a loved one’s ashes, the grey scraps were ferried off, to settle here, there, exactly where I would never know, in the dark heart of New York.

Now compare that to the scene in the film:

The Bell Jar

She hasn’t been raped. But she has had to stand up for herself. A guy tries it on—guys try it on all the time—and although upset, very few women would be traumatized unless they were already on the edge. The writing here’s too poetic, too pretty to do justice to the moment. In this scene at least I can see that the scriptwriter’s heart was in the right place. Her name was Marjorie Kellogg. I doubt anyone will remember her nowadays but I watched another of her films a few months back, a 1970 adaptation of her novel Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon, and it was quite wonderful.

So, bottom line: Would I recommend this book to you? Especially to the blokes out there. I want to say, yes. I do. But there’re only so many hours in the day. I’ve been making a conscious effort to read more books by women this year—which is how I wound up seeking out The Bell Jar in the first place—and what I’m finding is that I’m reading books because I feel I ought to read them rather than reading books that I want to read. The Bell Jar crops up on all sorts of ‘must read’ lists and in 1963 it was a must read but not nowadays. I want to say: No, read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest instead but there’re three things to consider. Firstly, if you’re reading The Bell Jar because you’re interested in the mentally ill then Kesey’s book is better BUT, secondly, if you’re reading The Bell Jar to gain some perspective into women’s issues then read The Bell Jar, not that you won’t learn a thing or two about women from Kesey but that’s by the by. Thirdly, I’ve not read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest since I was a teenager so maybe it’s also dated badly. Perhaps I should be recommending something like It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini—like Plath, Vizzini also committed suicide in his early thirties. Or maybe Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

The Artist of Disappearance

the artist of disappearance

Ravi was too crushed by the school day to take the risk of any other failure, and heaved his school bag onto his back to slink home with the hope of going unnoticed—which he mostly was. – Anita Desai, ‘The Artist of Disappearance’

The cover states this volume contains three novellas. I’ll deal with each separately.

The Museum of Final Journeys

In his review for The Washington Post Ron Charles says that “The Museum of Final Journeys is a little toothache of a story that you’ll have trouble putting out of your mind.” It’s as good a description as any without actually saying anything about the story. It says on the cover it’s a novella but at only 11,000 words you can really only call it a novelette.

The protagonist is an inexperienced bureaucrat, the son of a successful bureaucrat, who as part of his training has been assigned a post in some backwater where he gets to play King Solomon for people he doesn’t understand and could care less about but this is a necessary stepping stone and dutifully he makes do and gets on with it. The first part of the story lets us get acquainted with him as he acclimatises and then what little novelty there is wears off. Very soon he’s read all his books and has little to look forward to bar the crossword in the newspaper, so when an unexpected visitor from an estate he’d heard rumours of arrives talking about a museum his interest is piqued and he makes the trip to see for himself.

ElephantIt would spoil the story to say what he encounters there but what’s more interesting is what he does with the information. And Charles is right, this is a wee toothache of a story but I’ve never had a toothache in my life that I enjoyed. I don’t mind not knowing all the facts—in the real world we rarely have all the facts and we get by—but an author needs to be wary about what he or she chooses to omit. I thought Desai left me short-changed at the end of this story. That said I did enjoy what I read and she kept me turning pages but there were a few too many whys left at the end of this one for me. It is an interesting character study, however, even if we never learn the protagonist’s name or very much about him other than he’s subservient to the will of his parents; his mother eventually finds him a wife and he settles down to live much the same life as his father did before him. Only his father never experienced what the son does. He never saw the museum. To see the museum and then to end up exactly where he’d expected to be moving from one ministry to another until he reached the end of “a long and rewarding career of service” seems a little sad. It’s supposed to.

Translator Translated

Like the previous story this begins a little off-stage if you will: Prema Joshi, “middle-aged, even prematurely aged one might say,” arrives at her school reunion not expecting to be noticed by anyone; she was never anyone at school so why should she be anyone now? Her life since leaving school has been uneventful. She holds a “a junior position in a minor women’s college in a bleak and distant quarter of the city” teaching girls “every one of these [whom] would leave college to marry, bear children and, to everyone's huge relief, never read another book.” When Tara, the most glamorous girl in class, not only recognises her as a classmate but chooses to strike up a conversation with her Prema is taken aback. She’s followed Tara’s career since leaving school with interest. Tara “had founded the first feminist press in the country and made it, unexpectedly, an outstanding success.” You would think they’d still be poles apart.

And then a providential act took place. A small, grubby paperback slid out of the overstuffed, ungainly satchel that Prema was trying to keep from falling off her lap. And as Prema tried to stuff it back before any further objects followed it out, Tara, idly continuing the conversation since nothing else seemed to be happening, asked, 'What is that you're reading?'

bookThe book is a collection of short stories written in Oriya, the predominant language of the Indian states of Odisha, and it just so happens that Tara has been wanting to branch into translations but neither woman makes any suggestion to the other and it looks like the opportunity is to be lost. Prema, however, is passionate about the language—her mother spoke Oriya to her as an infant but died young—and also about the author of the stories, Suvarna Devi, who she is determined to champion and so makes the effort to see Tara again who although clearly a busy woman is quite accommodating and suggests Prema have a go at translating the book into English.

Publication of Prema’s translation brings Suvarna Devi to the city for a conference, where the two women meet but much to Prema’s surprise and annoyance she’s very much side-lined as merely the translator. She does get to meet her heroine later and persuades her to let her translate the novel she is currently working on. And this is where things start to go awry: Prema’s burgeoning ego begins to get in the way of things and she’s starting to think of herself as a co-author; she really is getting ideas above her station and stations are a big thing in India. Curiously a couple of times during the story the narration slips into the first person although the style is indistinguishable from the third person narration. Clearly the author is making a metafictional point here.

So an interesting wee story about identity, the need to be aware of our limits (as opposed to knowing ones place although there is a touch of that here) and why we should never give into the temptation to meet our heroes. A more rounded and satisfying piece than the first one.

The Artist of Disappearance

This final story—a bona fide novella this time—nicely rounds off the group. In some respects Ravi, the old man we meet at the beginning of this story, is like the protagonist in the opening novelette. As a young man he’s sent away to study and obediently he acquiesces:

The years that followed, Ravi did not count. He did not count them because he did not acknowledge them as his: they did not belong to his life because they did not belong to the forest and the hills. They belonged to the family in Bombay, to the business office, to his duties there, his relations to the family, and some years at a college studying 'management' (although they never made clear and he never understood what he was supposed to 'manage').

On his return home, however, his life takes a very different direction. Ravi is… I suppose the best expression I can use is ‘a child of nature’. From a very early age he just wants to be outside:

Hari Singh [the majordomo as far as I can figure out] gave up setting a place at the table with the requisite glass and silverware, and took to letting Ravi eat his meals at a small table out on the veranda where he would not be separated from the outdoor world that provided all the nourishment he wanted.

matchesHe’s an adopted child—“at the suggestion of a distant, philanthropic aunt”—but never really takes to the family nor them to him. Luckily he’s comfortable with his own company especially when left to roam free. His parents die before too much pressure is placed on him to marry and so, after a tragic accident, he ends up living alone in the ruins of the old family home cared for by Bhola, Hari Singh’s son, and his family who still keep their distance appreciating his preference for solitude. And then the film crew arrive and discover what Ravi’s been doing all these years hidden away from prying eyes.


This is a book suffused with melancholy and occasionally full-blown sadness. I read them in the middle of what passes for summer in Scotland and so I couldn’t help but feel hot reading them but I suspect one might sense that even in winter, not that the books are heavy on descriptions but she makes them count:

The sun was setting into a sullen murk of ashes and embers along the horizon when he turned the jeep into the circular driveway in front of a low, white bungalow.


Through the suppurating heat of June and July, under a slowly revolving electric fan, and with perspiration streaming down her face in sheets, Prema settled to trying to rediscover the joy she had initially taken in translation.


When he looked up from it he found the woolly dusk had knitted him into the evening scene, inextricably.

Although Ravi is the only out-and-out recluse all three characters live, at least for a time, on the fringes of society and all aspire to better things. Success comes at a price and although all three better themselves—in very different ways—it costs them. Having been a little disappointed by the ending of the first story I was wary about proceeding but the other two were better and I think the last one was the best but I have a soft spot for loners and outcasts. In an interview Desai says:

I’ve often written about people who don’t go along with the mainstream, who go against the current, who live outside of the current, or are stranded whilst everyone else just flows along. I think I’m drawn to such characters. Even in the last three novellas that I wrote, that same type of character surfaces again and again. I’m interested in people who live in a kind of exile; it may not be political exile, but in some sense it’s exile from the rest of society. It may have something to do with my upbringing and my parents. My mother, having been German, lived most of her life in India and never felt able to return to Germany. After the war, we would sometimes suggest, “Why don’t you go back and visit your country? See who is still alive, who survived.” It would bring her to tears, and she’d say, “Don’t make me do that.” To have lost your country, your family, your society, so wholly, must have been a devastating experience. Somehow she survived it. My father was, in a sense, in exile too. He was from East Bengal, which then became East Pakistan. So his family lost their land and everything else they had there. Then he came to Bangladesh, which was another loss, another change. He didn’t feel at home there either and lived in North India, which was a foreign country to him. They were outsiders, and while there’s no reason why I should be that too—I was born there—I was brought up with the same sense of being an outsider. I certainly absorbed it from them.

Going back to Ron Charles, looking at the book as a whole he says, “Desai takes a certain perverse pleasure in exposing the self-pity of mediocre people; if Anita Brookner were a little meaner, she might write like this.” This really hits the nail on the head. I’m a fan of Brookner—oddly I have to say because there are so many reasons why you wouldn’t think she’d appeal to me—and I suspect I might become a fan of Desai. I was interested in what Manini Nayar Samarth writes in the abstract to her dissertation:

Desai's fiction is lyrical, because, as in lyric poetry, it combines the self (the writer/protagonist) with society through epiphanic insight. The achievement of selfhood is therefore defined by a sense of mystic unity or belonging to a stable and known world. In contrast, Brookner's ironic novels express the failure of a self/world synthesis in an arbitrary and amoral wasteland. Selfhood is defined by the ability to confront and resist the corrosive effects of abandonment and homelessness. These diametric responses to alienation lead to two affirmative modes of closure. In Desai's lyrical novel, the self rests in grace attained through vision. In Brookner's ironic novel, it generates the courage to survive isolation through stoical acceptance or by the creation of a private fiction. Either way, both modes of closure denote a triumph of character over situation, of will over circumstances, thereby establishing the resilience and creative power of the spirit.

That these stories are all based in India is a little problematic—they’re several steps removed from my personal experience of the world—and I found myself googling more Indian words than I would’ve liked but there is still a universality to the book; these people weren’t so different that I didn’t get them. Maybe that says more about me than I care to admit.

I’ll leave you with a very nice—and lengthy—interview with the author.


Anita Mazumdar Desai was born in 1937 in Mussoorie, India, to a German mother, Toni Nime, and a Bengali businessman, D. N. Mazumdar. She grew up speaking German at home and Bengali, Urdu, Hindi and English outside the house. However, she did not visit Germany until later in life as an adult. She first learned to read and write in English at school and as a result English became her "literary language". She began to write in English at the age of seven and published her first story at the age of nine.

She was a student at Queen Mary's Higher Secondary School in Delhi and received her B.A. in English literature in 1957 from the Miranda House of the University of anita desaiDelhi. The following year she married Ashvin Desai, the director of a computer software company. They have four children, including Booker Prize-winning novelist Kiran Desai whose novel The Inheritance of Loss won in 2006. You can read an interview between them here.

She is the Emerita John E. Burchard Professor of Humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As a writer she has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times; she received a Sahitya Academy Award in 1978 for her novel Fire on the Mountain, from the Sahitya Academy, India's National Academy of Letters; she won the British Guardian Prize for The Village by the Sea.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Out of the Dark


Everything disappears his books seem to tell us, and also—in small but omnipresent echoes—everything somehow stays. – Jordan Stump in the introduction to Out of the Dark

In his introduction to Out of the Dark translator Jordan Stump talks about the title he chose to give to this novel:

The French title of this book, Du plus loin de l'oubli, poses a particularly thorny problem, since the English language has no real equivalent for oubli, nor even a simple way of saying du plus loin. The phrase, taken from a French translation of a poem by the German writer Stefan George, is literally equivalent to ‘from the furthest point of forgottenness,’ and I have found no way to express this idea with the eloquent simplicity of the original.

You can read an interview with Stump here.

french coverOut of the Dark is an okay title but that’s as far as it goes. And one might be forgiven for saying that Out of the Dark is an okay novel had its author not just been awarded the Nobel Prize. If I were asked for a single word to describe this book the one I’d go with would be ‘understated’. There’s a lot its narrator never found out and he can’t tell us what he never knew but he’s also looking back on events fifteen and thirty years in his past and so can be forgiven if he doesn’t get every detail straight—in 1964 the couple go to see the film Moonfleet but as it was released in France in March 1960 it’s unlikely it would still be showing anywhere—but I suspect the real problem with the storytelling is that the narrator doesn’t choose to share everything. What interests him he describes in great detail; the dialogue, for example, moves slowly because he frequently comments on facial expressions and gestures and yet he skips over his past as if it’s entirely inconsequential.

A recent article in The New York Times following the news that Modiano had won the Nobel Prize reports:

Peter Englund, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, which awards the prize, called Mr. Modiano “a Marcel Proust of our time, “noting that his works resonate with one another thematically and are “always variations of the same thing, about memory, about loss, about identity, about seeking.”

And if that’s the case Out of the Dark is probably as good a novel to read as any if you want a taste of Modiano. Where it is, apparently, a little different is the fact it has little or nothing to say about World War II. According to Wikipedia:

Obsessed with the troubled and shameful period of the Occupation—during which his father had allegedly engaged in some shady dealings—Modiano returns to this theme in all of his novels, book after book building a remarkably homogeneous work.

It’s a short novel—just shy of 150 pages (none of his novels are epics)—and is written in lean, clean, easy to follow prose although he can be a little repetitious at times—just how many times does he need to mention that Gérard Van Bever’s overcoat was a herringbone and Jacqueline’s soft leather jacket was too light for the time of year?—but this is a minor criticism and Dan Brown’s survived worse. The narrator is looking back from 1994—he was born during the summer of 1945 so that makes him about fifty—firstly to the winter of 1964 where the bulk of the novel takes place (over a three or four month period beginning in August), then to 1979 (this time only dealing with two or three days) and finally to the present, October 1994. What ties all three periods in his life together is a woman called (at least in 1964) Jacqueline.

In an interview Modiano makes an interesting observation about his writing (assuming Google Translate’s done a fair job): “If an x-ray of my novels were made, we would see that they contain whole sections of the Profumo affair or the case of Christine Keeler.” Modiano was in London in 1960, the Profumo scandal came to a head in 1963 and his first book was published in 1968. Was Jacqueline modelled on Keeler? Who knows? But read on.

terriblesWhen our unnamed narrator meets Jacqueline she’s a part of a couple but when has that thwarted a full-blooded Frenchman? As I read the opening few pages I was immediately reminded of Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles whose title is rarely translated into English these days so I think Stump might’ve been forgiven for digging his heels in and insisting that Du plus loin de l'oubli be kept as the title. The narrator is an outsider (which, of course, suggests another French classic with an untranslatable title) who gets embroiled in a world he’s not entirely comfortable in or fully understands. There is a reference to the novel A High Wind in Jamaica (a book in which children quickly become part of life aboard a pirate ship and treat it as their new home) and there’s definitely a feel of that here but even more so in the London section of the book. The couple he meets are essentially bohemians although neither’s artistic unlike the narrator who aspires to be—and finally does become we discover—a writer. They get by on charity, gambling and finally theft and for some reason open their arms and accept this young man into the fold without any explanation. He’s a dropout. Estranged from his family he lives in a cheap hotel and gets by selling books. He’s a good fit.

Modiano largely abandoned his own family and once said of his mother that her heart was so cold that her lapdog leapt from a window to its death. It’s also been said that he does not know where his father’s buried. There’s clearly a lot of Modiano in this book’s main protagonist. In the novel this is virtually all the narrator says about his parents:

I was drifting away from my parents. My father used to meet me in back rooms of cafés, in hotel lobbies, or in train station buffets, as if he were choosing these transitory places to get rid of me and to run away with his secrets. We would sit silently, facing each other. From time to time he would give me a sidelong glance. As for my mother, she spoke to me louder and louder. I could tell by the abrupt way her lips moved, because there was a pane of glass between us, muting her voice. And then the next fifteen years fell apart: a few blurry faces, a few vague memories, ashes . . . . I felt no sadness about this. On the contrary, I was relieved in a way. I would start again from zero.

Jacqueline, for me, was actually the most interesting character in this book. Like the narrator she’s also “underage” but that just means she’s not reached twenty-one and is technically still a minor—why she’s out in the world on her own we never learn—but she copes. She’s manipulative, self-interested and has no problems letting things or people—older men especially—slip though her fingers and fall to the ground once she’s done with them. She abandons Van Bever for the writer (an out of character move considering his age) and then, after a move to London (funded by money stolen from a man called Cartaud who’s been passing himself off as a dentist and also has a thing for Jacqueline) she forsakes the writer without a backwards glance in favour of the slum landlord Peter Rachman.

Rachman, of course, was a real live person although he died in 1962. Wikipedia has this to say:

Rachman did not achieve general notoriety until after his death, when the Profumo Affair of 1963 hit the headlines and it emerged that both Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies had been his mistresses, and that he had owned the mews house in Marylebone where Rice-Davies and Keeler had stayed.

Keeler1Underlining this connection is the fact that Jacqueline is introduced to Rachman by Linda Jacobsen. In the (in)famous photo by Lewis Morley Keeler sits astride a copy of an Arne Jacobsen chair. Michael Savoundra, who they meet in the Lido with Rachman, is named after Emil Savundra who was an international swindler, confidence trickster and business partner of the real-life Rachman. There are also several references to Jamaicans in this section of the book.

Fifteen years later our writer encounters Jacqueline by chance—they’ve both returned to France by this time—and he follows her gate-crashing a party he suspects she’ll be at. Luckily she does arrive shortly after he does sporting a new hairdo, a new man and a new name but disappears overnight again. A further fifteen years on our writer again sees a woman he suspects might be Jacqueline and follows her for a bit but this time he decides to leave well alone.

None of the characters has what you might call a clearly defined identity and there’s virtually no backstory that we can trust. They’re amorphous beings. Even in his maturity it doesn’t feel like the narrator has settled down; found himself. What could possibly be gained by a third encounter with this woman?

On the little square you come to before the park there was a cafe with the name Le Muscadet Junior. I watched her through the front window. She was standing at the bar, her shopping bag at her feet, and pouring herself a glass of beer. I didn't want to speak to her, or follow her any farther and learn her address. After all these years, I was afraid she wouldn't remember me. And today, the first Sunday of fall, I'm in the métro again, on the same line. The train passes above the trees on the Boulevard Saint-Jacques. Their leaves hang over the tracks. I feel as though I'm floating between heaven and earth, and escaping my current life. Nothing holds me to anything now. In a moment, as I walk out of the Corvisart station, with its glass canopy like the ones in provincial train stations, it will be as if l were slipping through a crack in time, and I will disappear once and for all.

In this book no one is what they seem to be or say they are. Cartaud is clearly not a dentist, Van Bever is not a salesman, the writer’s not a student and he and Jacqueline are neither married nor engaged and yet parts are played as long as it’s convenient. At some later time—after 1979 but before 1994—the writer finds a photograph of himself with Jacqueline and notes, “I was struck by the innocence of our faces. We inspired trust in people. And we had no real qualities, except the one that youth gives to everyone for a very brief time, like a vague promise that will never be kept.” There’s definitely a touch of the mumblecore about this book.

I wasn’t sure about this book at first I have to say. The plain-speaking style is deceptive; it’s subtle. As his translator says in interview:

It is a very simple style, but it’s not plain and it’s not overly poetic. There is a kind of poetry in it, but it’s very discreet. So if you translate him too plainly, or if you translate him too poetically, you completely lose the voice. His voice is very elusive. It’s hard to get a handle on. But it’s straight-forward and it has resonance of meaning that isn’t on.

I recommend you give him a go. I’m not sure looking at the other mooted nominees he would’ve been my choice—we’ll have to wait until 2064 to learn who the competition was—but he’s certainly not a bad writer. He’s an interesting writer, quietly digging his own furrow. Or as he’s put it himself: “I have always felt like I've been writing the same book for the past 45 years.” And that reminds me of Brookner in more ways than one; she also writes short novels that sell remarkably well.


patrickPatrick Modiano was born in 1947 in Paris, where he still lives. He received his secondary education at various colleges: Biarritz, Versailles, Chamonix, and Paris. His father, Alberto Modiano, was an Italian Jew with ties to the Gestapo who did not have to wear the yellow star and who was also close to organised crime gangs. His mother was a Flemish actress named Louisa Colpeyn. His family’s complex background set the scene for a lifelong obsession with that dark period in history. His big break came partly due to his friendship with the French writer Raymond Queneau, who first introduced him to the Gallimard publishing house when he was in his early twenties.

His first novel, La Place de l'etoile, published in France in 1967, won the Roger Nimier Prize and Fénéon Prize. Modiano won the Prix Goncourt in 1978 for his novel Rue des boutiques obscures (Missing Person) and the Grand Prix du roman de l'Académie française in 1972 for Les Boulevards de ceinture. He also won the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca from the Institut de France for his lifetime achievement in 2010, and the 2012 the Austrian State Prize for European Literature.

Although he has written some twenty-nine novels (which apparently have been translated into more than thirty languages) less than a dozen of his works have made it into English and several of which were even out of print before the announcement of the fact he had been awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize. The award-winning Missing Person had sold just 2,425 copies in the US prior to the Nobel announcement. Yale University had intended to print 2000 copies of his novel Suspended Sentences this year; that’s now been upped to at least 15,000 copies.

Sunday, 26 October 2014



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

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

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

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

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

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

3 writers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 19 October 2014

A History of Books


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s an example:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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