Tag Archives: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Here Is New York – in five fragments

Central Park, October 2010. Pic: Cormac Looney

Central Park, October 2010.
Pic: Cormac Looney

It’s long been a habit of mine to read my way to a destination before I actually travel there.

Not using guide books, but novels or poems. And so, over the years I’ve come to associate certain places, cities in particular, with certain writings.

When I think of London it’s the city of Great Expectations, and Pip’s coming of age in the streets and rooms of Newgate, or the eerie East End gothic of Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor.

Likewise Haruki Murakami, whose The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle took me to a surreal, paranoid version of Tokyo in fiction, accompanied me on a visit to Japan earlier this year.

On occasion I haven’t, nor am I every likely to, be in the place I’m reading about. While I’ve visited and revisited the remote Gilf Kebir plateau in the Libyan desert, where Michael Ondaatje set part of The English Patient, I doubt I’ll ever see it in person.

But the literary place that’s mapped clearest in my mind is one I have visited – the city of New York.

Hence my interest the recent Reading American Cities series on the Guardian’s Books blog, specifically the entry on Manhattan.

I agreed with one of the titles recommended as a “literary companion” to the city – The Great Gatsby. But the others, DeLillo’s Underworld and Auster’s The New York Trilogy, while certainly books of the city, weren’t books of my New York.

And so I chose my own – here’s New York in five fragments, from five works.


410uN4RypVLCrossing Brooklyn Ferry, Walt Whitman (1855)

Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.

 

Gatsby_1925_jacketThe Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.

 


a4afce26-ab10-42c8-9180-0a268a4b78f5-280x420Catcher In The Rye, J.D. Salinger (1951)

I live in New York, and I was thinking about the lagoon in Central Park, down near Central Park South. I was wondering if it would be frozen over when I got home, and if it was, where did the ducks go? I was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over. I wondered if some guy came in a truck and took them away to a zoo or something. Or if they just flew away.

 


2f656cc7-40b4-4e5a-8917-d2ecdf6e9a01-273x420Netherland, Joseph O’Neill (2008)

 We were sailing on the Staten Island Ferry on a September day’s end…Everybody looked at the Statue of Liberty and at Ellis Island and at the Brooklyn Bridge, but finally, inevitably, everybody looked to Manhattan. The structures clustered at its tip made a warm, familiar crowd, and as their surfaces brightened ever more fiercely with sunlight it was possible to imagine that vertical accumulations of humanity were gathering to greet our arrival.

 

Finally, and despite my misgivings above about guide books, it’s impossible to avoid E.B. White’s classic love letter to his home city.

hereisnewyorkHere Is New York, E.B. White (1949)

The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.
_____

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Reading, the long and short of it

What would Cervantes, Tolstoy or Wallace think? Pic: Steve Rhodes (David Foster Wallace)

Unimpressed? Cervantes, Tolstoy, Wallace.
Pic: Steve Rhodes (David Foster Wallace)

HOW long is too long?

Around 250 pages – if you’re award-winning novelist Ian McEwan.

More than one reader probably slammed down their Hilary Mantel in disgust last week on encountering the writer’s comments on the length of the modern novel.

Using his new release, The Children Act, as a convenient guide, McEwan reckoned 65,000 words is about the right length for a book nowadays.

Such a work can be read in one sitting, he suggests, “like enjoying a three-hour movie or opera”.

Moreover, “very few really long novels earn their length…the Americans especially love a really huge novel…a real brick of an object.”

This shorter-is-better mindset shouldn’t surprise anyone. McEwan is about as far from an American as I can imagine, and most of his novels clock in well under 250 pages.  (The much-lauded On Chesil Beach runs to 166, placing it firmly in novella territory.)

"A real brick of an object."

“A real brick of an object.”

One can only imagine what David Foster Wallace (1079 – Infinite Jest), Cervantes (1072 – Don Quixote) or Leo Tolstoy (1225 – War And Peace) would make of it all.

As a reader (or masochist) who has made it through Moby Dick (625) twice in his 36 years I’m not on McEwan’s page on this.

His comments did get me thinking, though. What was the last 800-page novel I read? And, for that matter, when was the last time I watched a three-hour movie?

It’s been a while, on both counts. But I haven’t avoided longer books because, as McEwan suggests, characters should be established “very quickly” and one or two subplots is enough.

If only it was that simple. Like most people the reason I avoid longer books is time.

Time that’s eaten into by digital grazing, by work, by working out, by (sometimes) just wanting to sit in a room and stare at the ceiling.

Any number of reasons, really. But they combine and conspire to cut into reading time and the concentration required to read.

A slim Steinbeck.

Flat boy – slim.

When my time comes under pressure like this shorter books quickly look more attractive. And so I buy The Children Act and not The Goldfinch, lamely convincing myself that I will, one day, get to Donna Tartt’s 784 pager. (Spoiler: I won’t.)

But once or twice a year, usually on vacation when the time pressure eases, I’ll attempt something longer – The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle on a two-week trip last May, for example.

The increased time investment usually yields a greater reward – more time spent with characters, deeper immersion in plot – and I tell myself I should really do this more often.

And then my eye is caught by a slim Steinbeck and I’m back in the sub-65,000 aisle again.

With a clear two-week period coming up soon I’m already promising myself great things: maybe even Murakami’s gargantuan 1Q84 (brace yourself …928).

We’ll see. Maybe it’s time for a very short story (4), just while I decide.

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