Category Archives: Literature

Book by book, I’m reverting to type

Actual books.

Actual books.

Burn the Kindle.

Trash it, recycle it, get rid of it. In recent months, slowly and silently and after long afternoons spend in Portland bookstores (often, but not exclusively, the labyrinthine Powell’s) this is the conclusion I’ve arrived at.

My Kindle, gifted to me by my wife some years back, is likely outmoded at this point. But it’s crammed full of books – titles I bought and read during in a golden year or two when I believed that e-readers – with their convenience, their ability to store notes, the searchability of text they offered – were the future.

They were not. As time passed I increasingly found myself reverted to type (so to speak), buying and reading physical books (very often used copies, which I’d pick up after hours trawling the shelves). Not only that, but I’ve also found myself buying second copies (hardback, paperback with a different cover or a nicer typeset) of books that I already own.

My plan, vague at present but soon to be locked down (I promise myself) is that the shelves in our home will eventually boast a perfectly-curated browsing experience; visitors will come and marvel at the smooth thematic transitions, the pristine Collected Yeats, the Michael Chabon with the Marvel-esque cover. And this is no books-as-interior-design-feature plan: I’ll only shelve what I’ve read.

My wife, sensibly, points out that this grand scheme may require, at most, a structural refit of our home and, at least, a serious purge of the piles of my existing titles. So be it – but what will remain will be distilled, pristine, our own Library of Babel.

Which reminds me, I need to upgrade my battered Borges…

_____

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The meaning of life, according to a ghost

George Saunder's 2017 novel.

George Saunders’ 2017 novel.

The world’s bookshelves – not to mention its places of worship – are filled with attempts to uncover the meaning of life. Not only is it hard to find (let me know if you have), it’s also hard to write about.

In terms of fiction, at least. While philosophers and the religious can deploy a chosen strategy or belief system in their attempts to pin down and formulate it, novelists have no such overt frameworks to hang their theories on.

Sometimes it’s best approached in a roundabout way. The gangster Pinkie Brown from Graham Greene’s “Brighton Rock” comes to mind in this respect, a killer whose surface actions appear to motivated by understandable criminal hatreds, but whose cold-blooded willingness to kill underlies the great empty pointlessness of his situation.

On other occasions, it’s tackled head on – the “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name…” lines that the narrator speaks in Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean Well-Lighted Place“; the nothingness that the old man in the cafe in the story seeks to avoid, through brandy and company.

I recently came across a more positive – or less hopeless at least – outlook in George Saunders’ “Lincoln In The Bardo”. At its core a novel about death and bereavement, one of the main characters, a ghost who’s speaking as he’s about to ascend/descend into heaven/hell, provides as clear an account of the meaning of life as I’ve read in fiction in some time. Whether it enlightens, or provides consolation, is a different matter, of course (personally, I’ve looked to poetry for that), but it reads as good as any.

“None of it was real; nothing was real.

Everything was real; inconceivably real, infinitely dear.

These and all things started as nothing, latent within a vast energy-broth, but then we named them, and loved them, and , in this way, brought them forth.

And now must lose them.”

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Listening back to Dublin in the 2000s

Will Oldham, 2001. Pic: Sébastien Crespin

Will Oldham, 2001. Pic: Sébastien Crespin

I wish I could remember more.

About my twenties, but more specifically about the music shows I attended back then. This occurred to me in recent days, when I listened to an album I hadn’t heard in a decade, by an artist who was once a major part of my musical life. The recording was “Ease Down The Road”, the artist Bonnie “Prince” Billy (Will Oldham to his mother).

In the early 2000s I was a devotee of Oldham’s music – not as hardcore as some, but I knew his albums “Master and Everyone”, “I See A Darkness” and “Ease Down The Road” very well. Then, for some reason, I stopped listening.

This is one of those curious things that I’ve encountered in my relationships with certain artists – in music or literature or art. One day I’m deep into their rare studio outtakes – then I blink and it’s 10 years later and I can’t even recall the name of the record I played constantly for two months.

It happened with David Gray, with Jan Gabarek, with Francis Bacon and with Jonathan Franzen. One moment I’m hanging on their every note, brush stroke or sentence, the next it’s “oh, that guy”.

It seems, though, that if the roots have been laid deep enough, I can return. So it was with “Ease Down The Road”, which I came across while mindlessly browsing my music streaming service.

A single listen was all it took to bring me back to Dublin 18 years ago, to a friend who pushed a copy of “I Can See A Darkness” on me, to an ex-girlfriend who was even more into “Master and Everyone” than I was, to a half-remembered night at Whelan’s on Camden Street, where an irate old guy (who was probably younger than I am now) kept hissing “quiet!” at tipsy gig goers, cupping his hands around his ears to get his deep dose of Oldham’s gothic folk music.

At times it was hard to fight off a feeling of nostalgia. But this was outweighed by one of regret – that night in Whelan’s was one of many in those years, the highs and lows of which I’ve forgotten. Where are the crew I used to go to those shows with now? Why did they rebuild Whelan’s (to my ears and eyes it was an imperfect gem)? Could me-then have predicted than me-now would one day look back on that scene from a distance of almost two decades and 5,000 miles?

And why should any of this bear thinking about? Isn’t every day a new one? What’s the value to tracing past experiences?

Finally though, a most important question – how could I live through those intervening years without listening to this song?

_____

 

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Memorial Day, Eagle Rock Boulevard

When I think of L.A. I think of things that are no longer there.

John Fante’s Bunker Hill boarding house,

The crumpled slips between the wooden seats at Santa Anita racetrack,

Where Bukowski cursed his way through another weekday afternoon.

The marble fireplace where Scott Fitzgerald stood,

In the rented Hollywood home where he tried to recharge his life – and where he lost it.

That strange bright emptiness – a great unease – that Joan Didion lived in and wrote about.

The last is still there, high above Eagle Rock Boulevard, where I walk, remembering.

All of these people wrote, and lived and drank and fought, against it. And for what?

The dust, the heat, the dry air, the lure and the promise and the tiredness, are too great to overcome.

Not that we should stop trying.

—–

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What will survive of us

From Dad to Anne. Powell's, Portland, Dec 2017.

From Dad to Anne. Powell’s, Portland, Dec 2017.

Fifty-five years ago a man sat in a diner somewhere in the United States, pulled a book from his pocket, and inscribed a short, touching note to his daughter on the first page.

As he did so, did it occur to him that a person not yet born, in another place in another century, would one day read his words? Or that the book he inscribed would travel from that counter top on a journey that would see it end up, in 2017, on the shelves of a used bookstore in Portland, Oregon?

“Anne,” the man writes, “waiting for lunch in the Olympic Grill I have been looking through this book I just bought, and it is so much your book that I have decided to give it to you, even though it isn’t Christmas or birthday or even Easter.”

He signs off with a simple, “Dad”.

Whatever became of Anne? Or her father? Were they close, a dad and daughter who knew each other well enough to know that one would enjoy the Dylan Thomas book that the other had just bought?

Or were they distant, or becoming so? Is the absence of a sign-off simply the sign of a less emotionally-open age, or a clue to their relationship?

Re-reading the note, as I stood between the shelves in Powell’s this week, I wondered how far the book had traveled. I can’t locate an Olympic Grill in Portland in 1955. Perhaps the man sat in the still extant Kelly’s Olympian, nearby in downtown Portland, or in another establishment in another part of the country.

The place is likely gone, like the man himself and, quite possibly, his daughter. But his small gesture remains, on the opening page of a crumbling $5 book that – perhaps because of the note inside – I couldn’t bring myself to buy.

“What will survive of us is love,” wrote Philip Larkin. I hope that I held a small piece of it that afternoon.

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Finding Kavanagh in the canal bank rush

Patrick Kavanagh, 1963. Pic: NLI

Patrick Kavanagh, 1963. Pic: NLI

On a recent visit to Dublin I navigated through a Tuesday morning rush hour along Herbert Place, a few feet above the slow-moving waters of the Grand Canal.

As I did so, I wondered what the bard of Baggotonia, Patrick Kavanagh, would make of his old strolling ground.

The 50th anniversary of the poet’s death falls in November, and the Dublin that he left behind in 1967 is as dearly departed as the man himself.

The city of pubs and priests, holy hours and holy grail civil service jobs – the city Kavanagh knew, if not loved – no longer exists, thankfully. The 8am surge along Wilton Terrace moves with the same speed and attitude as that on lower Manhattan, or Canary Wharf.

Few wallow in the habitual or the banal in 2017, it seems. Why should they?

And what could a 20th century farmer poet from rural Co Monaghan have in common with today’s Baggotonians?

Canal bank walk, 2017

Canal bank walk, 2017

Little enough, I thought, until – days later – verses from one of Kavanagh’s later poems came to my mind.

‘Thank You, Thank You’ was written as an epilogue to a series of university lectures the poet delivered in the early 1960s. Part of the poem warns against nostalgia:

Don’t grieve like Marcus Aurelius
Who said that though he grew old and grey
The people of the Appian Way
Were always the same pleasant age
Twenty-four on average.

But, more to the point, Kavanagh’s poem celebrates the universal soul – whether it be in 1967 or 2017:

…what it teaches is just this
We are not alone in our loneliness,
Others have been here and known
Griefs we thought our special own
Problems that we could not solve
Lovers that we could not have
Pleasures that we missed by inches.

The words resonate across the span of a half century, from a poet seated by still canal waters to commuters whizzing by in 2017, yards from where he once rested. And whether we were there or are here, whether we were then or are now, we are not alone.

_____

 

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‘Brilliant and bleak beyond words’

Remnants of a fire lookout on Bald Mountain, Oregon

Remnants of a fire lookout on Bald Mountain, Oregon

All that remains are two large, oblong stones, which lie perpendicular to one another in a small glade.

Yet it’s here that, for decades in the middle part of the last century, fire watchers spent their summers, perched on the summit of Bald Mountain, beneath the huge glaciated wall of Mount Hood to the west.

Only the two stones remain on the mountain top these days, surrounded by the tall trees that have grown up in the 60 or more years since the lookout was abandoned.

Standing at the summit last weekend, on a blazing hot Oregon August day, I wondered if any of those who watched on Bald Mountain were still around? What could they tell of the long months spent up here alone, binoculars in hand, scouring the ridges, tree lines and valleys for storms and smoke?

Since I was a teenager the job of fire lookout has seemed hugely romantic. Long before I encountered Thoreau, and at a time when the highest peaks I’d climbed were the lowly Slieve Bloom mountains in the Irish Midlands, I was fixated on the job.

The weather, the remoteness, the desolation – all undercut with a grave responsibility to protect people: was it any wonder it appealed to a young scout?

Fast forward a few years and – now in my late teens – I discovered the writings of Jack Kerouac. Better known for his cross-country beat jaunts, the writer also spent two months as a lookout on Desolation Peak in the High Cascades range, in Washington.

Writing about the experience afterwards, Kerouac noted: “Sixty three sunsets I saw revolve on that perpendicular hill – mad raging sunsets pouring in sea foams of cloud through unimaginable crags like the crags you grayly drew in pencil as a child, with every rose-tint of hope beyond, making you feel just like them, brilliant and bleak beyond words.”

While brilliant, the crags of Mount Hood National Forest are not bleak – not in summer at least. Every hour dozens of hikers walk the Timberline Trail beneath Bald Mountain’s summit, while dozens more saunter down the nearby level stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail.

But the peak itself is quiet, if not desolate, and a few moments spent alone there are enough to remove you from yourself, and connect you to the generations of people who hiked there before, and millennia of flora and fauna that existed in that spot.

And cause you to think of, as Jack the Lookout put it, “a blade of grass jiggling in the winds of infinity, anchored to a rock, and for your own poor gentle flesh no answer”.

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Coffins, rats, corpses, and life – Bloom in hell

James Joyce, Zurich, 1915.

James Joyce

Hades is where it’s at.

The sixth chapter of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ is not only one of the most accessible in the book, it’s also a forensic depiction of an Irishman’s mind, as he considers life, the universe, and everything else.

The action plays out (or in, given that so much of it is internal monologue) against the backdrop of that greatest of Irish social occasions – a funeral.

The book’s hero, its Odysseus, Leopold Bloom, attends a service and burial for an acquaintance, Paddy Dignam. Bloom doesn’t know Dignam all that well but nonetheless, in the Irish tradition, feels duty bound to be present at the obsequies.

He travels there in a carriage with three other acquaintances, crossing Dublin from Sandymount to Glasnevin Cemetery, encountering on the way a child’s funeral, a herd of cattle, and the Royal Canal, while also spotting various places and people.

Glasnevin Cemetery

Glasnevin Cemetery

But the real activity is in Bloom’s mind, as his thoughts race from the undiscriminating nature of death (spurred on by the sight of the child’s coffin) to the mundane (as he reminds himself to switch a bar of soap between his pockets without being seen) to the fantastical (could a gramophone be put at a grave so the dead could ‘speak’ to the living?)

But for all the preoccupation with death, from the size of the child’s cortege (“paltry funeral: coach and three carriages”), to a fat rat running alongside a crypt (“one of those chaps would make short work of a fellow. Pick the bones clean”), to the “saddened angels, crosses, broken pillars, family vaults…old Ireland’s hearts and hands”, ‘Hades’ ends with a note of affirmation, a commitment to life.

As he walks away from Dignam’s grave, passing the cemetery’s hundreds of headstones, Bloom’s mood lifts. It moves from Dignam’s grave to his wife’s bed, from death to life, as Bloom exits Hades, stepping back into the living world of Dublin on June 16, 1904.

“The gates glimmered in front: still open. Back to the world again. Enough of this place. Brings you a bit nearer every time…”

“There is another world after death named hell. I do not like that other world she wrote. No more do I. Plenty to see and hear and feel yet. Feel live warm beings near you.

“Let them sleep in their maggoty beds. They are not going to get me this innings. Warm beds: warm fullblooded life.”

And so Bloom’s day continues.

_____

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A nightmare from which I’m trying to awake

James Joyce, Zurich, 1915.

James Joyce, Zurich, 1915.

Mr. Deasy halted, breathing hard and swallowing his breath.

“- I just wanted to say,” he said. “Ireland, they say, has the honour of being the only country which never persecuted the jews. Do you know that? No. And do you know why?”

He frowned sternly on the bright air.

“- Why sir?” Stephen asked, beginning to smile.

“- Because she never let them in,” Mr. Deasy said solemnly.

_____

By a curious twist I read these words this morning, on a day of protests and court applications and outrage in the United States.

They are from the ‘Nestor’ episode of James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses”, spoken to Stephen Dedalus by the small-minded headmaster Deasy. And spoken with great animation – Deasy has just chased a departing Dedalus to the school-gate to stress his anti-Semitic argument.

The words sum up a petty bigotry that, Joyce suggests, was to be found among sections of Dublin’s middle class a century ago. The sentiments can of course be found against another religion, in another country, 100 years later.

And so Joyce’s novel, published in 1922, is – among many other things – a fitting read for the times we’re in.

The book is a work of immigration. The author wrote it in self-imposed exile; having departed Dublin in 1904, his peripatetic lifestyle led him to Trieste, Zurich and Paris. One of the main reasons for this exile was the burgeoning Irish nationalist movement, nationalism being, as Dedalus famously points out to Deasy, one of “those big words…that make us so unhappy”.

Drawing of Leopold Bloom by James Joyce

Drawing of Leopold Bloom by James Joyce

Immigration, religion (another of Dedalus’ big words), and their effects down the generations are central to the novel, principally by way of Leopold Bloom. The book’s central character,  Bloom is the son of a Hungarian Jew who emigrated to Ireland and converted to Protestantism.

Despite Bloom’s own conversion to Catholicism, he encounters an ingrained, nod-and-wink anti-Semitism as he navigates his way around Dublin on June 16, 1904. At one point The Citizen – a nationalist and xenophobe – talks, in Bloom’s company, of Jews “swindling peasants… and the poor of Ireland. We want no more strangers in our house”.

Bloom retains his composure in the face of such bigotry. His thinking, his behaviour, and his dignity represent Joyce’s riposte to the forces of religion, colonialism (by way of England) and nationalism.

Bloom is a true citizen, a pacifist, a Dubliner with a Jewish background, an individual who is a man first, an Irishman second. He may feel conflicted at times, but this is the price of his virtue of moderation.

Bloom doesn’t make an appearance in the ‘Nestor’ episode, and so does not hear his young friend Dedalus utter one of the most resonant lines in “Ulysses”:

History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

As many might suggest, this can apply to the present too.
_____

 

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Failing better in 2017, or worse

Samuel Beckett. Pic: Roger Pic

Samuel Beckett. Pic: Roger Pic

No choice but stand. Somehow up and stand. Somehow stand. That or groan. The groan so long on itsway. No. No groan. Simply pain. Simply up. A time when try how. Try see. Try say. How first it lay. Then somehow knelt. Bit by bit. Then on from there. Bit by bit. Till up at last. Not now. Fail better worse now.

You’ve probably come across the Samuel Beckett line, beloved of tech entrepreneurs and sports stars, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

You may not have come across the longer quotation above – unless you’re a fan of Beckett’s difficult late works. It’s from the same piece of writing, “Worstward Ho”, and comes a few lines after Richard Branson-esque earlier line.

Having despaired of a mantra with which to start 2016, last week I landed on the “fail better” line. Glib as it is, it struck me as having the right blend of hope and trepidation for a new year, given the year we’re departing and what we face in the coming weeks.

Then I delved a little deeper and came across the longer, “somehow up and stand” quote. It reflects the positivity of the shorter quote, with the addition of some cold reality.

Hopefully “fail better worse now” won’t be the final word on 2017 in 12 months time but, if it is, I can’t say that one of the 2oth century’s great absurdists didn’t warn me.

Until then, simply up. Happy New Year!
_____

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