Category Archives: Literature

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.

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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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‘All together in a sudden strangeness’

NE Alberta Street. December 2016

NE Alberta Street. December 2016

Portland is many things but it’s not quiet. At least it’s not in the area of north Portland where we live.

Traffic is fairly steady in the streets around our end of N Mississippi Avenue, where the nearby I-5 provides a fairly constant background hum in the daytime hours. It’s not intrusive, just an ever-present feature.

It’s also one you don’t notice until it’s gone. Which is what happened over the past 48 hours, as a winter snowstorm hit the Rose City.

And so, confronted last night by sub-zero temperatures, slick streets and frozen pavements, I did the first, if slightly reckless, thing that came to mind: I stepped out for a five-mile walk.

What struck me was the silence.

Earlier that day I had read a Guardian article on the theme of walking through an urban area at night. One of the most common observations of those who undertook such outings was the lack of noise, the absence of traffic, other pedestrians, construction activity.

Walking down N Alberta Street now, there was no evening rush. MLK was quiet – the motorists who had ventured out were sticking to a crawl as they navigated frozen, untreated roads. There were few pedestrians on the slippy pavements, and the cafes and bars of the Alberta Arts District were forlornly empty.

And so I walked. For miles (more than five, to be exact), across snowy pavements and intersections, meeting only the occasional dog-walker or stubborn pedestrian. When I did, as Pablo Neruda wrote, we were all together “in a sudden strangeness”.

This was a different Portland, one I hadn’t seen and one which appears only very occasionally. It showed me a different city, the physical structures and thoroughfares standing apart, freed from the constant, sometimes choking, activity that passes through and around them.

One of the contributors to the Guardian feature wrote that, at night when the streets are deserted, “the empty city feels like it’s yours…you feel outside the world”. So it was for me, for one night at least, in snow-struck Portland.

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Snowmaggedon falling faintly and faintly falling

Donal McCann as Gabriel Conroy in "The Dead" (1987)

Donal McCann as Gabriel Conroy in “The Dead” (1987)

Snow was general all over Portland this week. It was falling softly upon the Japanese Gardens and, further westwards, softly falling on the dark Willamette waves.

Snowstorms don’t happen very often in this part of the world. Mercifully so, as the city slides to a halt when they sweep in. Pavements are ice rinks, roads lie untreated, movement is all but impossible. It’s almost as bad as the notorious Irish ‘Big Freeze‘.

That country came to mind this morning as I lay in bed, shivering and reading “The Dead”, the short story which ends James Joyce’s’ “Dubliners”.

Its famous closing lines depict snow falling on Dublin and, as Gabriel Conroy experiences his epiphany, across the midlands to the western seaboard. The precipitation was, Richard Ellmann believed, a metaphor for human mutuality, the experience of life and of death that we all share.

Joyce’s words, like the quiet, empty streets of Portland’s ‘snowmageddon‘, are a calming break from the general run of things. And worth reading, before the Christmas rush descends.

Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, further westwards, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling too upon every part of the lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Snow in North Portland. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Snow in North Portland. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

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James Joyce and his decent silk hat

I’m currently deep into Richard Ellmann’s biography of James Joyce, an 800-page opus which is, in parts, almost as detailed as “Ulysses” itself.

As such, I’m well into the world of Joyce-words: ‘europicola’, ‘allalluvial’, ‘douncestears’, to pick three among thousands. At times it’s not easy going, and it got me thinking. Did the man himself ever read his work into a microphone? What did the colossus of Modernism actually sound like?

The answers are: yes, and like a slightly stiff Irish lawyer.

In November 1924 Joyce made a recording of a section of “Ulysses”. The audio, set down at the HMV studio in Paris, would be one of only two such artifacts he made (five years later he would make an eight-minute recording of an extract from Finnegans Wake).

The excerpt Joyce picked is from the ‘Aoelus’ episode of ‘Ulysses’, a section known as ‘The John F Taylor speech’. The passage is a metaphorical take on the relationship of Ireland and England. Joyce picked it, his friend and publisher Sylvia Beach later said, because he reckoned that it was the only part of his book fit to lifted out and ‘declaimed’.

'Portrait of James Joyce' Patrick Tuohy (1924-1927)

‘Portrait of James Joyce’
Patrick Tuohy (1924-1927)

Listened to the audio down the passage of 90 years it sounds strange – ethereal and formal in equal parts. It didn’t inject much color into my impression of Joyce – but it did lead me onward, to the footage above.

It is one of only two pieces of film I can find of the Irish writer, both shot in Paris in the 1920s (the other features the writer and his wife strolling down the street – here at 3:00 minutes). In the clip Joyce stands on the street, holding a conversation with someone off camera and looking like a skinny Irish version of Vito Corleone as he stares dismissively into the camera.

It’s spliced with a brief clip of the writer stepping out of a house, a child running before him. Again the vibe is one of a literary made man.

The footage casts little, if any light on the writer himself. That’s no unfortunate thing, given that Joyce’s life is woven so extensively into his work already. If anything the film represents a brief respite from the latter, writing that’s at times entertaining, eye-opening, and hugely frustrating (usually in the same paragraph).

At the risk of sounding simplistic this brief clip also shows that, despite the poverty, drinking and illness, the writer could certainly pull off some nice threads.

Or, as he wrote in the short story ‘Grace’: “He had never been seen in the city without a silk hat of some decency and a pair of gaiters. By grace of these two articles of clothing, he said, a man could always pass muster…”

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Dylan and the Dead (literary greats)

Bob Dylan, 1984

Bob Dylan, 1984

What do Sully Prudhomme, Count Maurice (Mooris) Polidore Marie Bernhard Maeterlinck, Henrik Pontoppidan and Halldór Kiljan Laxness have in common?

Well, firstly they were all writers, though I confess to not having read any of them.

But they are also members of a select club, one which an ageing American musician joined this week (not that he had a choice in the matter).

Like Bob Dylan, they are all Nobel Prize winners for Literature. Unlike Bob Dylan, their work can hardly be considered popular consumption in 2016.

And yet at one time all were considered authors who produced “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”, as Alfred Nobel put it.

Of course, one man’s ideal direction can lead to another’s blind alley. Dylan’s elevation to the canon of literary greats speaks more about the Nobel Prize, and artistic awards in general, than it does about a 75-year-old’s musician’s creative output.

The hat-tip may have seemed revolutionary to subscribers of literary magazines but don’t the classic works of Greek tragedy – the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles or Euripides – have their roots in choral songs? Two thousand years later, weren’t the chanson de geste – the 13th century epic poems that laid the basis of French literature – sung, not read?

And now we argue about whether the author of ‘Wiggle Wiggle‘ deserves a spot at the table of greats?

As Dylan himself stated many lifetimes ago, when asked if he was “a singer or a poet”: “I think of myself more as a song and dance man”.

Which may explain why, as the critics got their quills in a twist this week, the songwriter was at the Chelsea Theatre in Las Vegas doing what he does, singing, dancing and making no reference to the world’s premier literary award.

He not busy being born and all that…

Lute players from the the 13th century Cantigas de Santa Maria manuscript of songs

Lute players from the the 13th century Cantigas de Santa Maria manuscript of songs

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‘We have to seize earth by the pole’

Robert Frost, 1959.

Robert Frost, 1959.

My mental image of the poet Robert Frost is of an elderly man shuffling through autumn leaves on a New England laneway, staring over a broken fence, or picking an apple and dropping it to the ground.

His work has always struck me as dense and a little too didactic, with life lessons deeply embedded in every stanza. I’ve long since passed him over in favor of other poets whose writing on the natural world seemed more attuned to my own ear.

Two of these are Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes. To my surprise a joint work of theirs, the 1982 anthology ‘The Rattle Bag’, led me back to Frost this week.

Cometh the hour, cometh the curators. ‘The Rattle Bag’ is a collection of Heaney and Hughes’ favorite poems, and among the 350 or so are seven works by Frost.

One in particular spoke to me, and speaks to anyone undergoing changes and dealing with the occasional adversities that accompany them.

‘On A Tree Fallen Across A Road’ is a reality check, a sonnet which reminds us that, regardless of the circumstances, people will always find a way past. “The only thing I knew how to do was keep on keeping on,” Bob Dylan once advised. From one of those autumnal New England laneways Frost says something similar.

‘On A Tree Fallen Across A Road’

The tree the tempest with a crash of wood
Throws down in front of us is not bar
Our passage to our journey’s end for good,
But just to ask us who we think we are

Insisting always on our own way so.
She likes to halt us in our runner tracks,
And make us get down in a foot of snow
Debating what to do without an ax.

And yet she knows obstruction is in vain:
We will not be put off the final goal
We have it hidden in us to attain,
Not though we have to seize earth by the pole

And, tired of aimless circling in one place,
Steer straight off after something into space.

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Creating great content – Hemingway style

Ernest Hemingway, 1939

Ernest Hemingway, 1939

The two habits of successful content creators are simple ones: write and cut.

It’s as easy – and as complicated – as that. Put as much of the good stuff down as you can, and then start paring it back. When you’re finished paring it back, rewrite it. Then repeat the process.

When you’re done, proofread it. Then proofread it again.

The process may sound mechanical, something which goes against the creative flow, but each revision will improve the work.

The ‘rinse, repeat’ strategy came to mind this week as I read Paul Hendrickson’s recent biography of Ernest Hemingway.

At one point Hendrickson recounts the guidance Hemingway gave to aspirant writer Arnold Samuelson.

“Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. There is, and you can’t get out of it,” the author told his friend, before issuing his often-cited advice on revision.

“Every day go back to the beginning and rewrite the whole thing and when it gets too long, read at least two or three chapters before you start to write and at least once a week go back to the start. That way you make it one piece. And when you go over it, cut out everything you can.”

This may explain why Hemingway wrote 47 endings to A Farewell To Arms and revised the entirety of Across The River and Into The Trees 206 times (or so he wrote to a pal).

Whether you call it writing or authoring or content creation, and whether you’ve an hour, a day or a week to do it, the secret to the best content is fiendishly simple. Write, cut and repeat.

Ernest Hemingway's first-page draft for “A Farewell to Arms.” Pic: John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Ernest Hemingway’s first-page draft for A Farewell to Arms. Pic: John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

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The running advice that keeps me on track

Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami

One of the best insights I’ve encountered about running came not from a coach, or a sub-three hour marathon runner, or an athlete interviewed with a new medal.

Instead it came from a (then) 56-year-old man who I’d never met, and who’d made his name writing stories about – among other things – talking cats and alternate realities accessed through wells.

When Haruki Murkami wasn’t dreaming up his postmodern fables, he spent a lot of time running. And a lot of that time was spent running marathons (Murakami’s tackled the Boston Marathon six times).

His experiences led to his 2007 book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, a memoir which recounts how the Murakami-the-writer became Murakami-the-writer-and-obsessive-runner.

In his mid-50s at the time, Murakami was familiar with the highs all runners know. Given his age, and the strain marathons place on joints approaching their sixth decade, he knew the lows too, the tough days on the track.

“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional…The hurt part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand any more is up to the runner himself,” Murakami writes.

When you’re running well – in my case 75% of the time – such thoughts never cross your mind.  But Murakami’s advice has become a critical mantra to get me through the hard sessions, the mornings when my plantar faciitis kicks off, or my shins begin to splint, or I simply find myself slogging through 45 minutes of steady wind and rain.

And pulling through those sessions is, to me, what the spirit of running is all about.

Dawn run, Galway, 2015

Dawn run, Galway, 2015

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A Route 66 of my own

Williams, Arizona, August 1999

Williams, Arizona, August 1999

It’s 31 years since Route 66 – the blacktop mythologized by John Steinbeck as ‘the mother road’ – was decommissioned.

The highway disappeared from maps but not, of course, from popular culture. The likes of John Steinbeck – who put his fictional Joad family on the road in The Grapes of Wrath – and Nat King Cole – whose (Get Your Kicks On) Route 66 became a rhythm and blues standard – took care of that, long before the last road sign was taken down in 1985.

The highway, established in 1926, ran almost 4,000km west from Chicago to Los Angeles. What started as a route for trucks became a path to a 20th century manifest destiny – the road to a place in the sun, in the golden groves of California.

It entered the American consciousness during the Dust Bowl migrations of the 1930s, when thousands of families from Oklahoma and Texas drove or hiked west seeking work. Route 66’s mythology was sealed in those years – a byword for migration, freedom, escape and the loneliness of a vast country.

Family with broken down car, CA, 1937. Pic: Dorothea Lange/LIbrary of Congress

Family with broken down car, CA, 1937. Pic: Dorothea Lange/LIbrary of Congress

During the Second World War it became a key route for transporting munitions to the ports of the west coast. The road fell to leisure use in the 1950s – a convenient route to California that ran close to the Grand Canyon and across the vast southwestern desert.

By the time I came upon Route 66 – almost 20 years ago – it had ceased to exist.

I encountered it by accident. Driving across the US in 1999 my travelling companions and I stopped in Williams, Arizona, a small town on I-40, the interstate which replaced Route 66. We only discovered when we parked up that we were doing so on side of the famed highway itself.

Steinbeck’s “long concrete path across the country…the road of flight” was quiet that day, hosting the sporadic lunchtime traffic of a small southwestern town. The ghost of Tom Joad had long since moved on.

As all of us do. Next month I will set out on a Route 66 of my own, departing Ireland for the Pacific North West. While packing possessions this week I came across a photo I took in Williams on that day in August 1999. A fitting sign, as I step back onto the Mother Road.

Route 66, Gillespie, IL. Pic: Goodsamaritan1

Route 66, Gillespie, IL. Pic: Goodsamaritan1

 

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