Home, James!

“Nothing that is mere wordplay is ever witty,” says Clive James in today’s Grauniad. This statement is so profoundly wrong, one has to wonder if it is meant to be satire. To see how wrong it is, start by reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets, where mere wordplay produces some of the most clever wit in English. Finish by reading or watching pretty much any play by Tom Stoppard, or any episode of Seinfeld. What was James thinking?
Continue reading ‘Home, James!’

Henry James' advice to writers

Earlier this year, The Spectator magazine ran a competition asking for 150 words of advice to intending writers purporting to be from well-known writers.   Had he still been alive, this would have been the advice that Henry James would not have given:

The – and it is, one would venture, most appropriate to deploy the definite article in this, admittedly ambiguous, context, although many may well disagree, and so the utterance will surely not remain uncontested, but, one hopes, always unrebutted – first – because the established custom in our society, at least that part having a certain level of education and – how shall I best acknowledge this? – breeding, is to denumerate from the first numeral, for, after all, exactly how could no elements even be articulated, let alone counted? – rule – although our society, however flawed, and it is flawed, is law-governed, or rather aspires to be thus – is – and there can be none, at least none of social consequence, who could argue or question what the meaning of is is – to be – for we are dealing with the invocation of existence in reference to something primeval, inchoate, even struggling to be birth-éd – concise.”

Two lists of books

In succession to this post which seems to have originated a meme, herewith two lists of novels – one list influential when younger, and the other later, with influence measured by strength of memory.  In each case, I include a couple of works of non-fiction, because of their superb writing.
The rules only allow listing of one book per author.   In fact, all the books of some writers would merit inclusion.  In this group, I would include Brautigan, Camus, Conrad, Faulkner, Gordimer, Ishiguro, H. James, Joyce, Maugham, Perec and Turgenev.
Influential when younger:

  • Albert Camus:  The Plague
  • JM Coetzee:  Waiting for the Barbarians
  • Joseph Conrad:  The Secret Agent
  • William Faulkner:  As I Lay Dying
  • Nadine Gordimer:  Burger’s Daughter
  • Joseph Heller:  Catch-22
  • Ruth Prawer Jhabvala:  Heat and Dust
  • James Joyce:  Ulysses
  • Franz Kafka:  The Trial
  • Arthur Koestler:  Darkness at Noon
  • William Least Heat-Moon:  Blue Highways:  A Journey into America
  • Doris Lessing:  The Diary of a Good Neighbour
  • Thomas Mann:  Dr Faustus
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez:  100 Years of Solitude
  • W. Somerset Maugham:  The Razor’s Edge
  • Herman Melville:  Moby Dick
  • Gerald Murnane:  Landscape with Landscape
  • Michael Ondaatje:  Coming Through Slaughter
  • Bertrand Russell:  The Autobiography
  • Jean-Paul Sartre:  Nausea
  • Mikhail Sholokhov:  And Quiet Flows the Don
  • Alice Walker:  The Color Purple
  • Patrick White:  Voss
  • Yevgeny Zamyatin:  We

Influential more recently:

  • Henry Adams:  The Education of Henry Adams
  • Richard Brautigan:  An Unfortunate Women:  A Journey
  • William Burroughs:  Naked Lunch
  • Italo Calvino:  If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller
  • Robert Dessaix:  Corfu
  • Shusaku Endo: Silence
  • Mark Henshaw:  Out of the Line of Fire
  • Kazuo Ishiguro:  An Artist of the Floating World
  • Henry James:  The Princess Casamassima
  • Ryszard Kapuscinski: The Emperor:  Downfall of an Autocrat
  • Naguib Mahfouz:  The Journey of Ibn Fattouma
  • Norman Mailer:  Harlot’s Ghost
  • Alberto Moravia:  Boredom
  • Georges Perec:  Things:  A Story of the Sixties
  • Antonio Tabucchi:  Pereira Maintains
  • Henry David Thoreau:  Cape Cod
  • Ivan Turgenev:  Fathers and Sons
  • Glenway Wescott:  The Pilgrim Hawk

As these lists may indicate, there are some writers (eg, James, Turgenev) whom one may only appreciate after a certain age and passage of years.
On the other hand, for various different reasons, books by the following authors do not speak at all to me.

  • The family Amis
  • Saul Bellow
  • The family Bronte
  • Peter Carey
  • David Caute
  • George Eliot
  • Richard Ford
  • Graham Greene
  • Ernest Hemingway
  • Howard Jacobson
  • Thomas Keneally
  • Iris Murdoch
  • Anthony Powell
  • Marcel Proust
  • Philip Roth
  • Tom Sharpe
  • Anthony Trollope
  • PG Wodehouse
  • and many more.

For some of these authors, the issue may be a generational one:  for example, I know of no members of late Generation Jones or later-born readers who appreciate that early-Baby Boomer obsession, A Dance to the Music of Time, Powell’s long-winded novel sequence.   Added 2013-02-12:    The age threshold of my personal sample is confirmed by that of Max Hastings, writing in 2004:

Anthony Powell’s fan club, always far smaller than that of his contemporary Evelyn Waugh, will continue to shrink as admirers die off and are not replaced.  Nobody whom I know under 40 reads his books, while Waugh’s position as the greatest English novelist of the 20th century seems secure.”

Of course,  not everyone shares my low opinion of Roth’s work.

Story and annotation

Francis Spufford, on writing explanatory text in his novel about back in the USSR:

It was as if I had to dip my steel-nibbed pen into the inkwell and say, ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a fortune must be in want of a wife; a wife being the female partner in a pair-bonded relationship for life, sanctioned by religion and integrated into systems of inheritance, child-rearing and regulated sexuality; a fortune being a quantity of money at a high multiple of the society’s average income, usually but not invariably available as a liquid resource; money being…’

Proto blogging


This is a post to salute Myrtle Hanley, who was a blogger avant la lettre.  She was born to a farming family in south-east Queensland early in the 20th century, the last girl in a a dozen children.   She attended Gilston State School, a tiny bush primary school in the hinterlands of the Gold Coast that had been founded in 1881 (see photo below).  At the time she attended, it was still a single-teacher school with just a handful of students;  from there, she won a highly-competitive Queensland Government scholarship to attend high school in Brisbane.   She was the first member of her family to attend high school.   Within her immediate family growing up, her nickname was “The book says so“, since she was fond of quoting books and articles she had read in arguments with her brothers and sisters.
Her father, however, resented her becoming educated, and forced her departure from high school after a year.  Her headmaster, sympathetic to her situation, found her a position as secretary and accountant to a saddlery in Brisbane.   She then commuted to Brisbane by horse and train from rural Dakabin, north of Brisbane, where her family now lived.   Daily commuting to work from the suburbs of large cities over longer than walking distances had begun in Melbourne and in Los Angeles in the 1890s, so commuting from a farm was perhaps not unusual in the 1920s.   Her parents later moved to the small beach-side settlement of Woody Point on Moreton Bay, where her mother early each morning would walk to the surf to swim, and then find and eat fresh oysters.   The photo above shows the Glass House Mountains, part of her country.
Gilston State School
She married a dairy farmer in 1933 and they raised a family in rural northern NSW.   Life for farmers was difficult through the Great Depression and the 1940s, and finances were a constant struggle.  Despite this, she maintained a long-running subscription to a book club, reading each monthly volume as it arrived, as well as subscriptions to overseas magazines.    She was renowned among her family for staying up late on election nights to track the individual seat results as they were announced on the radio.   All her life she was devoted to crosswords, and both adept and fast at cryptic crosswords.  She wrote well, and her one surviving story reveals a fine prose stylist.
Sometime in the late 1940s she heard a radio broadcast (perhaps one of the first in Australia) playing the Top 40 best-selling records.  She thought this information needed recording for posterity, and so began a four-decades long practice of listening to a radio broadcast of the Top 40 each Saturday morning, and keeping a written record of the list in a series of school exercise books.    This is the sort of information we’d expect nowadays to be maintained by some music fan on the web (although I cannot currently find these lists anywhere on the web).  One could view this weekly activity as a form of Zen practice, with the discipline of the regular practice itself being its own reward.  Due to such sustained and close listening, she acquired an uncanny ability to recognize popular singers, particularly men, and to tell them apart.  She had had some piano lessons at school and always kept a piano in the house;  her favourite piece of music was “Sunset on the St Lawrence“, a piano waltz by Frederick Harris (aka Maxime Heller).
She knew well the story of that river:  she loved and was well-read in North American history, particularly the history of the western states.   Starting in her 60s, she decided to record her opinions on various topics of public policy and current affairs, in the form of short essays (from 300 to 3000 words each).  She then read each essay aloud, recording it onto cassette tape.  What fun she would have had with blogs and podcasts!
Like all Australian pioneer women, she was courageous and unflinching in the face of great odds, and I was privileged to have known her.   Sadly, after her death her writings and recordings were thrown away.  I am reminded of Clover Adams, whose husband Henry Adams destroyed, after her death, all the photographs she had taken that he could find.

Visitations to a writer

Recently-deceased Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi, author of that subtle novel of political intrigue under totalitarianism, Pereira Maintains, writes about the visitation he received which inspired the novel, here.  How sad that the name of the brave Portuguese journalist whose death inspired the novel should be unmentioned by Tabucchi.

Dr Pereira visited me for the first time one September evening in 1992. In those days his name wasn’t yet Pereira. He still didn’t have distinct traits, he was rather vague, elusive, hazy, but he already nurtured the wish to be a protagonist in a book. He was only a character in search of an author. I don’t know why he chose me to tell his story. One possible hypothesis is that the month before, on a torrid August day in Lisbon, I too had made a visit.
I vividly remember that day. In the morning I bought the city’s daily newspaper and read an article about an old journalist who had died at the Santa Maria Hospital and whose remains lay in state at the hospital chapel. I shall discreetly avoid any mention of the deceased’s name. I shall say only that he was someone with whom I had a passing acquaintance in Paris, in the late 1960s, when he, a Portuguese exile, was writing for a Parisian newspaper. He was a man who had plied his journalistic trade in Portugal during the 1940s and 50s under Salazar’s dictatorship. And he had managed to ridicule the regime by publishing a savage article in a Portuguese newspaper. He naturally encountered serious problems with the police and was subsequently forced to choose exile.
I knew that after 1974, when Portugal returned to democracy, he went back to his country, but I didn’t meet him again. He wasn’t writing any more, he had retired, and I didn’t know what he was doing for a living. Sad to say, he had been forgotten. In that period Portugal lived the restless, convulsive life of a country that had rediscovered democracy after 50 years of dictatorship. It was a young country, led by young people. No one remembered an old journalist who had resolutely opposed Salazar’s dictatorship in the late 40s.
I went to view the remains at two in the afternoon. The chapel was deserted. The coffin was uncovered. The gentleman was Catholic, and they had placed a wooden crucifix on his chest. I stood beside him for nearly 10 minutes. He was robust or, rather, fat. When I knew him in Paris, he was about 50, svelte and agile. Old age, perhaps a hard life, had turned him into a fat, flabby old man.
At the foot of the coffin, on a small lectern, lay a register open to receive the signatures of visitors. A few names had been written there, but none I recognised. Perhaps they were old colleagues, people who lived through the same battles, retired journalists.
A month later Pereira paid his visit to me. I didn’t know what to say to him then and there. And yet I dimly understood that his vague self-presentation as a literary character was symbolic, metaphoric: somehow he was the ghostly transposition of the old journalist to whom I bid my last farewell. I felt embarrassed, but I warmly welcomed him.
That September evening I divined that a spirit drifting in the ether needed me to tell his story, to describe a choice, a torment, a life. In that privileged space which precedes the moment of falling asleep – and which I find most suitable for receiving visits from my characters – I told him to come back, to confide in me, to tell me his story.
He came back, and I immediately found a name for him: Pereira. In Portuguese “Pereira” means “pear tree”, and like all the names for fruit trees, it is a surname of Hebrew origin, just as in Italy the surnames of Hebrew origin are the names of cities. With this name I wanted to pay homage to a people who had left a great imprint on Portuguese culture and suffered the injustices of history. But there was another reason, literary in origin, which led me to this name: a brief interlude by TS Eliot entitled “What About Pereira?” in which a fragmentary conversation between two friends evokes a mysterious Portuguese man named Pereira, about whom nothing can ever be known.
About my Pereira, however, I began to know many things. In his nocturnal visits he told me that he was a widower who suffered from heart disease and unhappiness. He loved French literature, especially Catholic writers between the wars, such as François Mauriac and Georges Bernanos. He was obsessed with the idea of death. His closest confidant was a Franciscan named Father Antonio, to whom he shuddered to confess his heresy: he didn’t believe in the resurrection of the body.
Later Pereira’s confessions, joined to my writerly imagination, produced the rest. Through Pereira I located a crucial month in his life, a torrid month, August of 1938. I recalled Europe on the brink of disaster, the second world war, the Spanish civil war, the tragedies of our recent past. And in the summer of 1993, when Pereira – who had now become my old friend – told me his story, I was able to write it. I wrote it at Vecchiano, in two equally torrid months of furiously intense work.
By a lucky coincidence, I finished writing the last page on the 25 August. I wanted to record that date on the page because it is an important day for me: my daughter’s birthday. I felt it was a sign, an omen. The happy day of my child’s birth also gave birth – thanks to the effort of writing – to the story of a man’s life. Perhaps, in the inscrutable weave of events that the gods bestow on us, everything has its meaning.”
• Antonio Tabucchi died on 25 March 2012. This article about the writing of Pereira Maintains (Canongate) was translated by Lawrence Venuti.

Concat 3: On writing

For procrastinators among you writing the Great American Novel, here are some links with advice on writing:

  • Hilary Mantel [2010]:  The joys of stationeryThe Guardian, 2010-03-06. On why writers need to keep loose-leaf notebooks.  An excerpt:

That said, le vrai moleskine and its mythology irritate me. Chatwin, Hemingway: has the earth ever held two greater posers? The magic has surely gone out of the little black tablet now that you can buy it everywhere, and in pastel pink, and even get it from Amazon – if they believe your address exists. The trouble with the Moleskine is that you can’t easily pick it apart. This may have its advantages for glamorous itinerants, who tend to be of careless habit and do not have my access to self-assembly beech and maple-effect storage solutions – though, as some cabinets run on castors, I don’t see what stopped them filing as they travelled. But surely the whole point of a notebook is to pull it apart, and distribute pieces among your various projects? There is a serious issue here. Perforation is vital – more vital than vodka, more essential to a novel’s success than a spellchecker and an agent.
I often sense the disappointment when trusting beginners ask me how to go about it, and I tell them it’s all about ring binders.”

  • Rachel Cusk [2010]: Can creative writing ever be taught? The Guardian, 2010-01-30.  A moving discussion on teaching creative writing, and the relationship between writing  and therapy.

Honest criticism, I suppose, has its place. But honest writing is infinitely more valuable.
At the start of last term, I asked my students a question: “How did you become the person you are?” They answered in turn, long answers of such startling candour that the ­photographer who had come in to take a couple of quick pictures for the ­university magazine ended up staying for the whole session, mesmerised. I had asked them to write down three or four words before they spoke, each word indicating a formative aspect of experience, and to tell me what the words were. They were mostly simple words, such as “father” and “school” and “Catherine”. To me they represented a regression to the first encounter with language; they represented a chance to reconfigure the link between the mellifluity of self and the concreteness of utterance. It felt as though this was a good thing for even the most accomplished writer to do. Were the students learning anything? I suppose not exactly. I’d prefer to think of it as relearning. Relearning how to write; remembering how.

Doing a PhD

These are some notes on deciding to do a PhD, notes I wrote some years ago after completing my own PhD.
Choosing a PhD program is one of the hardest decisions we can make. For a start, most of us only make this decision once in our lives, and so we have no prior personal experience to go on.
Second, the success or otherwise of a PhD depends a great deal on factors about which we have little advanced knowledge or control, including, for example:
Continue reading ‘Doing a PhD’

Brautigan on writing

I am a great fan of the writing of Richard Brautigan, so I was delighted once to encounter a short reminiscence of Brautigan by that Zelig of the Beats, Pierre Delattre, in his fascinating memoir, Episodes (page 54):

The last time I saw him [RB], we were walking past the middle room of his house. There was a table in there with a typewriter on it.   “Quiet,” he whispered, pushing me ahead of him into the kitchen. “My new novel’s in there. I kind of stroll in occasionally, write a quick few paragraphs, and get out before the novel knows what I’m doing.  If novels ever find out you’re writing them, you’re done for.”

Reference:
Pierre Delattre[1993]:  Episodes. St. Paul, MN, USA:  Graywolf Press.