Tag Archives: Literature

Raymond Carver

I’ve just told my wife
That we need to visit Clatskanie, Oregon, your birthplace.
And I often think to myself “I should take a trip to Port Angeles
And see the great, gray light on the Pacific and visit his grave site”.

But then I think “What’s the point?”
Why bother with places, the faint traces of memory on streets and buildings, with plaques on walls?
All we have is the words, you wrote,
And they better be the right ones.
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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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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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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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Boxes, tape and a dread responsibility

Towering classics

Towering classics

This isn’t an easy post to write. Every aspect of it goes against my better nature – and my worst nature too.

It concerns an action that I’m not proud of, one that I will never repeat, a deed which has left me sick to the stomach, questioning my core values and reassessing my life’s direction.

I’ve purged my library.

It was my own decision, taken in a sober frame of mind and without coercion. And it was cold-blooded.

Over the years family and the odd (very odd – who suggest someone throw out books?) friend had advised me to do this. I ignored them of course. And the books continued to pile up.

Shelves had long since overflowed. Piles of paperbacks filled the bottoms of wardrobes and sprouted from the corners of bedrooms. When tripping over them became too much a simple solution presented itself: stuff the lot into empty suitcases. Which was fine, until it came time for a trip.

No part of me wishes I lived in a large mansion. In fact I’ve never lived in a house big enough to accommodate a library or even a small study. But sometimes it’s occurred to me that the only upshot of Jay Gatsby’s quiet desperation was the spare room at the West Egg mansion where he could ditch his unread books.

Empty shelves. 'Man Read at Lamplight', George Friedrich Kersting (1814)

Empty shelves. ‘Man Reading at Lamplight’, George Friedrich Kersting (1814)

After years of procrastinating, dodging requests from my better half, and generally burying my head in the sand (or in a newly acquired Penguin Classic) circumstances conspired to force me to face the inevitable.

And so, armed with a pile of cardboard boxes, tape and a sense of dread responsibility I started into the task – onerous but now unavoidable – of separating the ‘must keeps’ from the ‘must keep but this is cold reality’.

The keeper books needed no attention, they were going nowhere. But the others, each one assessed and re-assessed, maybe’d and if only’d, now stand in a series of small paper towers on the living room floor.

I can barely bring myself to look at them, including – as they do – books bought 30 years and a lifetime ago. Some were read and forgotten, some half read. others just held once every couple of years.

Adieu then to Don DeLillo’s magnum opus Underworld, the second copy I’ve owned and lost, with the plaintive image of the Twin Towers on the cover.

Farewell to Nietzsche‘s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, half-read, the product of a brief dalliance with existentialism.

Goodbye to William Gibson’s The Difference Engine, read as I dipped a toe into the world of steampunk.

These, and dozens more, are about to go. A friend’s offered to re-home some but most will be donated. At least someone else will, hopefully, read them – after our poignant parting I’m not sure I ever will.

And if this wasn’t heartbreaking enough worse lies around the corner – the opposite corner of the same room to be exact, where hundreds of CDs sit taking up space, unused, awaiting the purge.

Adieu DeLillo.

Adieu DeLillo

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I love that book – what’s it about?

What was that last book about?

‘What was that Camus novel about?’

Four months ago I read Haruki Murakami’s short novel South Of The Border, West Of The Sun.

Today I can barely remember a thing about the book. The characters (I’m sure there were male and female ones, maybe one of each), the plot (a quest of some sort, maybe involving travel across borders?), the ending (not happy, I’m fairly sure of that) – it’s all a blank page.

Now the book sits on a shelf, needling me from across the room. The problem is that it’s stacked alongside a Dave Eggers’ short story collection and a Jay McInerney wine book – and I can remember very little about those either.

What’s going on? Do I pick forgettable reads? Is my empathy through the floor? Or my concentration shredded? Am I reading on autopilot?

Part of this is age-related, of course. At 38 I’m likely experiencing the onset of age-related memory impairment. But I read Ask The Dust after Murakami’s novel and I recall every rooming house, bar and street corner.

About a boy. And a girl.

About a boy. And a girl.

Sitting on my shelf next to Murakami and Co is Patti Smith’s memoir M Train. In this account of her mid-life years, Smith is often preoccupied with the irritants of ageing. At one point the poet-singer (a Murakami devotee herself, incidentally), re-reading Albert Camus over her black coffee writes of “an intermittent, lifelong enigma”.

“I finished many books in such a manner…closing the covers ecstatically yet having no memory of the content…I look at the covers of such books and their contents remain a mystery that I cannot bring myself to solve. Certain books I loved and lived within yet cannot remember”.

That’s the thing. If I forget writing that was forgettable to begin with, that might be understandable. But some of the great long and short works that I’ve loved – Goodbye, My Brother; Great Expectations; The End of the Affair – are lost to me, in details if not in spirit.

The downside of this is that I often have a vague notion that a book is great but can’t really recall why. The upside? I’ve an excuse to read it again.

But not South Of The Border, West Of The Sun. It turns out it’s about a boy and a girl. The boy travels on a navel-gazing quest into his own past and winds up at sorrowful, empty ending. Sometimes your memory – or the lack of one – is enough.

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Keeping the desert down

John Fante. Pic: Afag Azizova

Studiously avoiding making resolutions for a new year, or asking about anyone else’s, I’ve instead spent the past 24 hours with Arturo Bandini – alter ego of writer John Fante – in the streets and boarding houses of 1930s Los Angeles.

Fante’s 1939 novel Ask The Dust is a tribute to human connection, its difficulty and its fleeting nature. The dry poverty of a life lived in a city built on a desert is ever present, the background to Bandini’s writings, wanderings, and attempts at wooing Camilla, his “Mayan princess” (and, at times, his waitress).

Bandini’s desperate LA love affair plays out on the novel’s surface, beneath which lies the sand, ancient and patient and unconquerable, indifferent to the almighty-yet-petty struggles of man.

“The desert was always there, a patient white animal, waiting for men to die, for civilisations to flicker and pass into the darkness…all the evil of the world seemed not evil at all, but inevitable and good and part of that endless struggle to keep the desert down.”

And so Bandini, obsessed by his own struggles with writing and women, makes a resolution. Having scripted a savage criticism of the short stories of a love rival who approached him for writing advice he reconsiders.

“Under the big stars in a shack lay a man like myself, who would probably be swallowed by the desert sooner than I, and in my hand I held an effort of his, an expression of his struggle against the implacable silence…

His fate was the common fate of all, his finish my finish; and here tonight in this city of darkened windows were other millions like him and like me…

I walked back to my room and spent three hours writing the best criticism of his work that I could possibly write.”

This outstretched hand offers a moment of hope in a story that will prove to sorely need it, and a message that self improvement is of little worth compared to an attempt at human connection – which is as good a resolution as any today.

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