Sunday, 31 October 2010

Recent Reads - A Terminated Journey and One That's Ongoing

Ismail Kadare - The Accident

Kadare is excellent at creating an atmosphere of uncertainty, mistrust, of doubt and speculation with nothing more substantial than rumour to go on. In earlier novels, Doruntine, and The Successor, he used the same techniques, an examination of differing reports, rumours, conjectures and possibilities regarding what had taken place.

The Accident stretches rumour, speculation and possibility even further. It examines the lives of two people who were found dead after an accident. It reports the different perspectives of people who knew them – and the two protagonists, Rovena and Besfort Y, themselves. But even the accounts of these two people are sketchy and flimsy and while we are told that they felt this or that, it is puzzling as to why they should feel such things. In fact the two main characters are not so much persons as axes, delineating a certain perspective or angle. With shifts in time and space, these angles and perspectives change; but whether, in actuality the scene is set two or six months earlier, whether they are in Vienna or Tirana or any other European city does not seem to matter much, for there is little to make the city come alive.

The emotional poles of these axes are their most frequented locations for even in the heat of desire there is a general frostiness to the atmosphere and this is where I found my irritation mounting. These chilly geometrical forms aroused no empathy in me whatever. Their sexual engagement was highlighted but was puzzling rather than erotic. It seemed to be what brought them together but what was the obsession was that kept these people flying around Europe to see each other in such stark and unappetizing surroundings as anonymous hotel rooms was beyond my abilities to fathom.

Perhaps this was the point, or one of them. Obsessions – of other people - are hard to understand. Agreed, but had these people been filled out as characters rather than depicted merely as poles of obsession we might have gained some understanding of why they were attracted and motivated.

The prose in The Accident is certainly clear and uncluttered and the translator John Hodgson has admirably conveyed its lucidity. But despite the dialogue, the book feels like sketches of ideas for a story. It reads as the rudiments of a tale, a map of possible approaches, but the histories of Rovena and Besfort Y, their jobs and their lives are so little described they do not ring true.

I understand that the realms of reality, dream, fantasy, hallucination, mis-perception, great tales from literature, myth, history, ideas and interpretations of myth and history – all these are intentionally intertwined in the lives of these people, in what urges, prompts and motivates them - as indeed is the case in our own lives. The writer's purpose may well be to examine this intricate confluence of realities that make up human beings, and can drive them to the most extreme acts which baffle outsiders; it may well be to show the sources of obsession, how it is fed and can grow like a tumour to take possession of people. If this was the intention then it succeeds. But the skill of a good story is to embed these ideas in a narrative that the reader can be involved in.

Catherine Czerkawska is a gifted and experienced writer – of novels, plays, poems and articles – she writes in a recent article about what makes a good story -

We can craft our elegant prose till the cows come home, but if the reader doesn't care what happens next, then we aren't going to get anywhere. Which is not to say, of course, that honing the prose doesn't matter, because it does.

There are of course other kinds of writing and great literature, which do not necessarily tell a story – poetry for example, and poetic or lyrical prose, such as the descriptive prose in Danilo Kis's Garden, Ashes, and Robert Musil's dazzling presentation of ideas, insights, metaphors and descriptions in The Man Without Qualities - and there are many more of course, these come to mind because I read them recently. There is as it happens, also narrative in these novels though I do not feel that great writing has to have a lot of narrative. Perhaps it's the quality rather than the amount.

Other novels of Kadare which I've read are Broken April, and The General of the Dead Army; they work well and involve us totally in the story, while Chronicle in Stone is a captivating read. But The Accident reads like a dossier or report – as it indeed supposed to be – but a novel that is supposed to be a report, to succeed, I feel – needs the craft of making it work well also as a story. The ideas of obsession, confusion, mistrust, speculation, hidden motives and fracture need to be reflected in the lives of human beings, rather than geometrical poles.

Night Train to Lisbon – Pascal Mercier

Pascal Mercier's book has been described as 'a novel of ideas' but these ideas are relevant to all human beings who have ever contemplated what life – and their own individual life – is about. So it is what I would call real philosophy, applied to our own lives.

The hero is not young and dashing, he is prey to the usual human anxieties and concerns – about his glasses, about missing his train connections, about whether he made the right choices in the past. But he sets out on a journey, and there is something of Alice in Wonderland about it, though without the intensely surreal edge to it. He has entered another world, as we all do when we set out, but in his case it is particularly unusual as he has spent almost all of his life in his home town in Switzerland, his journey is to somewhere he has never been before and where he does not know anyone. It is almost a journey made on a whim, but even as a compelling whim this is very unusual behaviour for our hero; but he wants to find out about the author of a book he has come across and which has profoundly affected him.

In his search for the author of this book he meets various people, all of whom have their own characteristics, more or less appealing, all interesting, and all connected in different ways, with the author of the book our hero Raimund Gregorious has found.

A book, a journey, a search – for people and for meaning – and an examination of one's own life – the perfect combination for me!

It is about ideas but also about how they arise in and affect real people [or real characters I should say]. There are no prescribed 'ways to be', no ultimate answers, but the journey is lived experience, and perhaps that is its own answer. The journeys, the talk and sharing, the exploration, both in

a physical environment and in the realm of ideas, this lived and active experience is its own answer, because of the effects it has on us. It is the hero's journey, that Joseph Campbell described, the journey we all make, through the landscape and territory of our lives, and written as a narrative that is absorbing and engaging – the reader does indeed care 'what happens next' – and this reader did not at all want it to end.

One of my favourite passages:

'….We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place; we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there. We go to ourselves, travel to ourselves, when the monotonous beat of the wheels brings us to a place where we have covered a stretch of our life, no matter how brief it may have been. When we set foot for the second time on the platform of the foreign railway station, hear the voices over the loudspeaker, smell the unique odours, we have come not only to the distant place, but also to the distance of our own inside;.......'

Monday, 25 October 2010

Fredericksburg and Afternoon on a Bare Mountain

If you drive a little way south west of Austin, you come to a sign that says Gateway to the Hill Country and indeed, the ground does start to undulate, to rise and fall in a very pleasant manner. There are some marvellous names such as Dripping Springs [a town], Old Bees Caves [a street], then there's the Drifting Wind run and the Rim Rock trail. We were heading for Fredericksburg, where German immigrants settled from the mid-19th century on. Apparently they resisted speaking English until the turn of the 20th century and were not incorporated into the Union until 1928.

Fredericksburg [named after Prince Frederick of Prussia] still shows many signs of its German origins, and attracts lots of tourists because of this. Varieties of German Wurst is served in the Ausländer Restaurant and we sampled local wines which were apparently grown from German grapes brought over from the Rhineland.

They also seem to have continued with the art of brewing......

Late afternoon, the hottest part of the day, we headed for the Enchanted Rock. After sampling Wurst, wine and beer, I was beyond finding out anything about its history. But it is a truly magnificent place, a round and bare pink mountain rising up out of the green and largely flat terrain around it. It revived my fantasies of camping out in the wild, under the stars – what unimaginable rock spirits must inhabit this place, what dreams might come to you here.

A Little Texan History

I'm interested in the history of just about anywhere. A few facts can be a springboard, allowing the imagination to take flight. The way that facts are presented makes a difference though – the person or the book may hold the key to the excitement-box, lighting up ideas and associations that stem from the facts. The tour guide in Austin's State Capitol I found out later, is also a teacher and I'm sure he's a good one, for he wore his learning lightly, smiled a lot, made jokes and seemed to thoroughly enjoy himself.

He told us that the life-size marble statues of Stephen Austin and Sam Houston were created by the sculptor Elisabet Ney in 1903 and that the former statue was only 5' 4” because that was his height, although average for the time he said, eyes twinkling. Sam Houston [over 6 feet] had a blanket ove
r his shoulder, apparently given him by the Cherokees with whom he'd lived for several years and who called him The Raven. Someone who lived with the Cherokees and was given a blanket and a name by them is someone I'd like to know more about.

The impressive rotunda on the ground floor shows the seals of the six countries whose flags have flown over Texa
s – they include Spain, France, Mexico, independent Texas, confederate Texas, and USA. So I learned a bit about the history of the state, not having realised that it had ever been considered a part of France or Spain, although admittedly it was back in the 1500s that it was Spanish and the French colony was around Victoriaville, whose precise location in Texas I failed to note. I do remember though that it was a Frenchman, one Mirabeau Bonaparte Lamar, who was connected, perhaps as a governor, with a small settlement named Waterloo. But a Frenchman, especially one with Bonaparte in his name could hardly eagerly embrace the unfortunate associations of such a name, grinned the tour guide, so it was renamed after Stephen Austin, he of the modest stature. Apparently there are still a few Waterloo references in Austin; I saw a block of buildings with the name, and a copy of the London underground sign in front of a store or a business of some kind.

Up in the Senate Chamber the walnut desks are over 100 years old and we are told the rules for the speakers. They can speak without interruption as long as they do not leave the room, have nothing to eat or drink, and do not touch anything at all, such as desk or handrail, while talking. I liked the last one as it seemed to guard against inebriation. The lights on the ceiling were apparently the first electric chandeliers to be made, and the groups of lights spelled out Texas [though this may not be clear in the photo.] We
Texans beamed the tour guide, relishing his pun, are not known for hiding our light under a bushel. We also have the biggest State Capitol in all of the United States – not the tallest though, since Baton Rouge added a tower to theirs, but that hardly counts.

I talked to the tour guide afterwards and he was delighted to know that I came from Scotland. I love the works of your writer Walter Scott, he said. And then – since you guys have been so nice to me I'm going to show you something special. And he beckoned to me and my son to come behind the desk, through another room where someone was sitting at a table – it's our break room now he says – up a step through another doorway, and then
he proudly shows us the old safe. It's a massive metal door, with a small room beyond it. Of course we don't keep anything of value here now, he smiles. But the safe door is exquisite, with coloured patterns and designs inlaid on its metal surface.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Return from Austin

I'm just back from Austin, Texas, very jet-lagged, arriving in a downpour at Edinburgh airport. Yet although wet, the cold was, surprising to me, not as intense as I remember it when I left. I quite like this disorienting feeling, of not being quite here, despite having a nap in the afternoon. Outside it's raining again, and one of the ash trees has lost all its leaves which means that more light comes through the windows.

Looking down on the countryside around Newark, the trees began to be colourful, orange and gold and yellow hats on them. In Texas the leaves just seem to fade or go slightly yellow and then drift to earth

a light rain of small and yellow leaves
soft sunshine, combed with shade -

a breeze rustles little leaf-waves
like the sea -

the dogs' feet crackle on the path

And in a vast second hand bookstore only a few blocks away I found a book I'd been wanting a copy of for some time – Camus'
Lyrical and Critical Essays.

Walking back in the hot sun, crossing under the flyover, waiting for the red warning hand to change to the white pedestrian figure – a man with a backpack and a sun weathered face crossed over while it was still red. Don't you cross though he said - looking out for my welfare - there are cars turning on red. I wait. Turn round to watch his progress, for another pedestrian is a rare sight. He looks back and waves. When I turn back the sign has changed – there's no time to daydream or be looking somewhere else for if you miss it, the red hand starts flashing again only seconds later. I cross over, leave the flyover behind, continue down the wide pavements. There is no hurry and no shade and no other pedestrians in sight.

More later, about the State Capitol, and the Enchanted Mountain....

Monday, 11 October 2010

Camus' Other Life

Camus – A Romance – Elizabeth Hawes
Published by Grove Press, New York

When I say Camus' other life I don't mean that he had a hidden or secret life - any more that is than any of us do - which this book uncovers, but rather that this book reveals Camus to us, as a recognizable human being, one we can relate to, feel empathy for, it celebrates his solidarity with others as well as his sense of isolation, and brings him vividly to life.

Like all good biographies, a large amount of research has gone into its creation. But it differs from others in one important respect, which is probably why the author called it 'a romance'. Most biographies take pains to be detached – or at least to present it in this way. It's hardly possible for us to be detached from whatever subject we study, there will always be our personal interpretation, even if we claim this is not so. But Elizabeth Hawes makes no such claim. She loves her subject, she is deeply involved in Camus' life and work, and in my opinion this makes for a far more interesting book.

While Camus' life and work is followed more or less chronologically, the book also weaves backwards and forwards in time, as some of the chapters are presented thematically. There is for example, a chapter devoted to his illness, TB, and how it must have affected his world view as well as his values, emotions and his decisions.

But most of all, throughout the book Hawes, rather than simply analysing the influences and effects in his life, of the places and the times he lived in, the people he knew, his family and upbringing etc, spends time with what Camus himself wrote, with the words written about him by others and with his photographs, in order to feel what it was like to be him. She charts but does not judge, the troubled self behind the creative works.

This inclusion of feelings and intuitions as well as the more interpretive capacities of the mind, is what turns it into 'a romance'. Bringing affection and compassion to bear on the man and his work produced on me anyway, the kind of effect that going outside into warm sunlight does, after one has been shut inside in a stuffy room. The sense of relief and expansion is palpable.

In an earlier post I mentioned reading a biography of Camus which left me feeling sad and somewhat melancholy, as if the main theme in his life had been – despite his huge amount of work - struggle against isolation, despite his many friends and loves, despite the successes of his books, journalism and plays. Struggle against feeling an outsider [in Paris] against his later writing being misunderstood, against published attacks both literary and personal. Culminating in an early death, the total effect was of struggle followed by failure.

While struggle was definitely a part of his life, Hawes never gives us the impression of failure but on the contrary, charts a series of successes, often against the odds. She describes the background to these struggles, the creative work, the finished oeuvres, published or performed. In the process she draws us into the most secret and private corners of his life. She shows us not just the humane philosopher, the man deeply concerned with ethics and values, but also the person who felt he had to speak out, who could not keep silent in the face of the upheavals and revolutions - both literal, in terms of the wars, and inner or metaphorical, in terms of people's lives, actions and thinking - that took place throughout his short lifetime. She examines both the public and the personal Camus as well as his own sense of conflict and paradox as he recognized the difficulties, at times, in reconciling the two.

His illness, his determination to speak out, his sense of responsibility, his vulnerabilities, his prolific output, his struggle to write when he felt attacked and alone, his deep and lasting friendships, his compassion for others, and his love of life, all these are addressed. From his lyrical essays, particularly about Algeria, to his struggle with humanity's moral questions, in a time of war and totalitarian regimes, to the symbolism of his novels, and the reflections contained in his journals, his Carnets, we see the immense range of his thinking and feeling, we are struck by his honesty, his suffering and his capacity for love.

This book includes the writer. It does not try to see Camus purely in objective terms. It is Camus in relationship to the writer's focus, in the light of the writer's mind. This is no blind love however, but one which seeks understanding and knowledge. Her scrutiny is sensitive. She does not judge but rather tries to go with Camus when his moods and feelings shift, to the places that his emotions and his ideas take him.

It is a fascinating experience as the reader too, feels drawn in to the very fabric of Camus' life, in particular his search for authenticity both in his ideas and his feelings. When he describes his love and nostalgia for Algeria for example, you feel it too, emanating both from Camus' sometimes terse jottings, and from Hawes' ability to lead you to this point and place in his life, where you can almost hear the deep silence of the French countryside, the rooster calling at first light.

Many well thought of and esteemed writers [or any others in the public eye] can become caught inside their own image or their own positions. Sartre for example, seemed unable to shift his position vis a vis communism, even when confronted with the facts of Stalin's persecutions, while Camus was able to say, once he realised what was going on in Stalin's Russia, that he was wrong, and to condemn a regime that could mete out such treatment to others.

Camus' search for authenticity meant that he was constantly grappling with the effects of the persona, the public image. Shortly before his death, Camus was returning to the theatre, writing and directing plays. More than anything, he liked working with others in the context of the theatre and he was popular with all kinds of different people, typesetters, printers, stage-hands as well as writers and actors.

At the time of his death Camus was also working on a novel The First Man. This was not published until several decades later. Incomplete, it tells a story that is clearly drawn from his own life. To know the experiences of Albert Camus the man, for someone unfamiliar with his work and his ideas, this novel may well be the one to start with. And while his most well known novels, The Stranger and The Plague contain his more philosophical and ethical ideas, his essays - particularly those written about Algeria - contain his most lyrical, moving and deeply-felt writing.

'Each artist is undoubtedly pursuing his truth.......But the only people who can help the artist in his obstinate quest are those who love...
The Enigma, Camus

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Readings from the Hearth and Chester's Roman Walls

To Chester, on the 6th, for the Chester Poets reading the next day - National Poetry Day. A fine and sunny day for travelling on the Transpennine train to Manchester, changing for Shotton. The valleys of the lake district, remembering long ago journeys with my parents, to visit my sister in Gloucester, before the motorway was built, taking the old road to Shap, the slow lorries on the steep hills.

The old road is visible from the railway, and a few trucks, looking as small as if viewed through the long lens of time, appear like the past, accomplice of this present journey in the train that sways and rattles through a landscape still a little startled at these brief and recent travellers.

Recent in the hills' memory at least, accustomed to the wide sweep of birds' wings, the calling of hill sheep, the opening of the flowers in spring, and the falling of their petals in the autumn. This shuffling train still feels like an intruder through these valleys, however small it tries to make itself.

someone has spilled gold paint
on the tree tops -
a passing deity, his bucket brimfull
distracted maybe by the light and the sparse pines
that lean into the green and folded land

The reading was at the Commercial Hotel in Chester, tucked behind narrow lanes of medieval buildings, leaning walls and patterned brickwork, echoing alleyways with sealed up secrets and a light plastering of time, sprinkled with subtle lighting from old lamps. Or so it seemed to me. A spattering of night shadows, and great company.

The theme of this year's Poetry Day was Home. The room we read in had an old fireplace with the microphone for the reader just in front of it so one was actually standing in the hearth. Poems from the Hearth somebody quipped.

The next day, yesterday, Sally, Maureen and I walked round Chester's Roman walls.

the stones that form the city wall
are rounded with time's heat and chill -
with its shawl of wet or windy memories -
red stones, red and yellow trees -
the canal is now the silent sentine

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Experiences of Travel in India wanted

Places for Writers has a call for contributions from women who have travelled to India.

"Seeking contributions from women to travel anthology of creative non-fiction, “Emails From India: Women Write Home.” The pieces may be short vignettes or long essays/stories, focusing on a place/event in India, keeping the female experience somewhat salient. Deadline: November 1, 2010. More info:"

Janis Harper says

Aside from publishing journalism, academic articles (I teach College English), and poetry and prose in journals and anthologies, I’ve edited and published a successful anthology of creative non-fiction with Anvil Press (2007), Body Breakdowns: Tales of Illness and Recovery. It's received a lot of very good press and still garners glowing reviews. It’s the Editor’s Choice in the September 2010 issue of Reader’s Digest magazine, and there’s a 26-page spread of excerpts from it. If you want an idea of the kind of writing I'm looking for, this anthology will give you that, though without the email slant.