‘Something deep’ – a few thoughts on reading, and on books about books

This was first written for what I thought at the time was World Book Day.

Turns out 23 April used to be World Book Day. It isn’t any more. It’s now earlier in the year. Forget when. The brain’s a bit foggy right now, for boring medical reasons I won’t trouble anyone with.

But here’s a little something I put together earlier, for the World Book Day that turns out to be Not World Book Day.

‘Something strange began to happen. I felt as if I was in on the inside of the book, a spotlight trained on something deep inside me.’

That comment is from author Picot Ayer and is quoted in David Lodge’s ‘Lives in Writing’ and it reminds me of what it was like discovering books as a kid.

Getting totally submerged, at a level of depth it was difficult to surface from. There were a couple of times at school, early in the afternoon, the teacher would notice I was missing & despatch a classmate to the library as I wouldn’t have heard the bell.

I seldom get that feeling these days. The ability to completely immerse yourself in something, to the exclusion of what is going on around you, is a gift of childhood we lose as we get older, if only for the necessary reason that as we get older there are too many things to juggle in the mind.

By the time you become a parent, it is – or should be, if you’re doing your duty  – almost impossible. If you’re fortunate and organised, you might be able to fence off some times for that kind of happy, oblivious focus.

lodge careyUntil the offspring comes roaring in to announce how many marbles they can get up the right nostril, or something similar.

For novels, too, I think it became difficult after formal study, for me anyway.

A stint studying law changed how I read,  and it took years to unlearn. It was a new, laborous and joyless way of tracing words across the page, reading interminable cases and distinguishing between how one distinguished judge distinguished between one set of facts and the legal principles as applied therein, and another set of facts.

Studying law, however fruitlessly, taught me some useful things, the most important of which was probably that I’d be a lousy lawyer – but it buggered up my ability to enjoy reading for years.

The other reason, also linked at least a bit to formal study, was that my time at Uni coincided with the high noon of  the unfortunate influence of literary theory on the modern novel.

I considered doing a double Politics/English major, but one – well, a few – looks at this literary theory nonsense was enough to make me wish for the death of a few more authors.

I find all too often now I’m reading books about books, when it comes to novels, rather than the novels themselves. I’ve had a recent bash at some of the canonical novelists I managed to miss during what for the sake of form we’ll call my education – Joseph Conrad, Henry James, Thomas Hardy.

Actually, in the case of Conrad, I picked up ‘The Secret Agent’ in the school library when I was in 7th form, and recall being a bit disappointed at the decided paucity of shoot’em up heroics or sexy undercover women spies.

Oh, and I did read Heart of Darkness at Uni. It was kind of compulsory, in the ’80s, if only because we all knew Apocalypse Now was kind of an updated version of the book, or meant to be, anyway.

Henry James seems to take a while to get to the point – always assuming there is a point to get to and we’ll set that issue to one side for now – and what I’ve read so far reminds me of Jane Austen: I can appreciate the deftness and cleverness of the writing but I have a mental foot tapping away going O for crying out loud GET ON WITH IT.

Hardy isn’t, so far, as depressing as I’d been led to believe but maybe that’s just me.

So – a couple of recent books on books I’ve read…

Both are, in their different ways, rather rude about the influence of literary theory on the novel. And quite right, too.

David Lodge points out that theory’s importance has been overestimated, mostly by theoreticians whose progress through academia depends on it.

Literary theory, he says, is

‘almost exclusively an academic pursuit, driven by professional as well as intellectual motivations. In a period when the university job market became increasingly competitive it provided an array of impressive meta-languages with which academics in the humanities could win their spurs and demonstrate their professional mastery. But to anyone outside the arena – the educated general reader, for instance – the excruciating effort of construing this jargon-heavy discourse far exceeded the illumination likely to be gleaned from it, so they stopped reading it, and nonspecialist media stopped reviewing it, which was bad both for academia and culture in general.’

I’ve added emphasis on ‘the educated general reader, for instance’ because it is this group of people – or rather, perhaps, the intelligent general reader (there are plenty such readers who have never darkened a university lecture hall’s door) – upon whom literature and in fact wider culture depends.

I’d go even further: one of the faults of a university education is it can, if one does not keep ones wits about one, lead one to take some ideas too seriously: ideas which should be greeted with derisive laughter and indeed often are by the aforementioned intelligent general reader. But I’m digressing a bit, again, in what I admit is a fairly rambling blog entry.

Carey’s memoir covers similar ground to Lodge: he traverses his landmark and controversial The intellectuals and the masses, which was published in the mid-1980s and annoyed all the people it should have.

Here was this English literary academic , trenchantly attacking English literature academia for snobbishly trying to pull up the intellectual bridge behind itself. Who let this pleb up to the Top Table? Was the general tenor of much of the response

Carey’s theme, which he revisits here in part, is that the rise of mass literacy caused intellectuals to respond in hostile fashion, resenting the ‘semi literate’ masses. This, he argues, led to all manner of unhealthy preoccupations such as the popularity of eugenics among such intellectuals as DH Lawrence HG Wells and WB Yeats. He suggests the move to make high culture more inaccessible was also part of this response.

‘They created what we now call modernist literature, which cultivates obscurity and depends on learned allusions, comprehensible only to the highly educated.’

The same drive for obscurity and inaccessibility occurred in other art such as painting and music and he backs this up with quotes from everyone from TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Virginia Woolf, George Bernard Shaw, EM Forster, and Aldous Huxley.

He must have had a ball, going through that little lot. Rather him than me.

The response from his fellow English academics, or most of them, anyway, ways, he says “howls of fury” with  reviewers “beside themselves with rage”.

In other words, he’d hit a bullseye.

Both he and Lodge write about writers they like as well as those they don’t. I was drawn to them for different reasons – Lodge because he’s written some very enjoyable novels, and Carey because he wrote a damn good biography of William Golding, whose works I’ve only really discovered in the past few years.

Carey seems to like D H Lawrence: I don’t, but I like the general principle he elucidates here –

‘To believe Lawrence’s writing is dangerous is to assume that readers just suck it in uncritically, and it would be a strange reader who did that.  Literature functions by making us imagine what it would be like to be someone else, inhabiting another body, thinking other thoughts.  Lawrence is able to bring that about because he writes with such passionate conviction. The force of his ego drenches you like a monsoon.’

And he is quietly amusing on the perils of book reviewing:

‘Reviewers can make enemies… A prominent man of letters refused to shake hands with me when we were introduced because he thought I had given a bad review to a book of his in revenge for a bad review he had given to one of mine. Assuring him I hadn’t read his review only made it worse.

Ah, well.

The David Lodge book is a collection of essays on writers and writing: it has, mostly, the kind of deft wit and humanity he’s brought to his own novels. John Carey’s book is more a memoir, mostly focused on his writing and on writers.

Both pay reading by that intelligent reader I mentioned above, and both can be dipped into and read a chapter or two at a time if you, like myself these days. find it seldom possible to immerse yourself into a book in the way described above by Iyer.

‘Serious Noticing’ – James Wood on writing (and reading) 

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The Nearest Thing to Life by James Wood Jonathan Cape 2015

“I find that my memory is always yeasting up, turning one-minute moments into loafing, 10 minute reveries.” – James Wood

Which is not a bad thing to do over the summer break, all things, somewhat leisurely, considered.

Especially if the yeast is also the stuff contained in a nice lager. Cheers, everyone.

This review has in fact been sitting in the draft folder for nearly a year* – in a completely unplanned way, I seemed to have a lot of books about books, and they were all damn good, often better than the books they were about.

The main post at the time was this, involving Clive James, amongst others.

Wood is similarly analytical and, like James, in a determinedly non-theoretical style. He might though, in fact, refute the “analytical” tag: a lot of the criticism he most likes is ‘not especially analytical but is really a kind of passionate reader description’.

That rang a ding of appreciative recognition with me: the basic question of ‘what’s it like?‘ can be over analysed, and certainly over-theorisied.

It is, he says, ‘a way of writing through books, not just about them…. One has the great privilege of performing it in the same medium one is describing:

‘When Coleridge writes of Swift that he “had the soul of revelation but dwelling in a dry place”, or when Henry James says that Balzac became so devoted to his work that he became a kind of “Benedictine of the actual”; when Pritchard laments that Ford Maddox Ford never fell into that “determined stupor” out of which great artistic work comes – these writers are producing images that are qualitatively indistinguishable from the metaphors and similes in the so-called “creative” work.

‘They are speaking to literature in its own language.’

He muses that our life stories have no shape or more accurately nothing but its presence until  ‘it has its ending; and then suddenly the whole trajectory is visible’.

Julian Barnes has similar thoughts in some of his recent writing, prompted in his case by a funeral, and it takes the old brain down some channels of thought which move away from literature and onto religion, or at least questions of a ‘what’s it all mean??????!!’ nature.

There is, Woods says, a struggle within a novel between present and past, instance and form, free will and determinism, secular expansion and religious contraction.

‘Authorial omniscience has such a fraught history: the anxiety is partly a theological one and has the unresolved nature of the theological argument. The novel seems foreverrunable to decide whether it wants to revel in omniscience or apologise for it, foreground or foreclose it. Should the novelist intervene and interrupt or withdraw into impersonality and frigid indifference?’

The most important part of the book is the middle part entitled Serious Noticing , beginning with comments on the Chekhov  story called “The Kiss” which focuses on just that, at length, and the different perspective two parties had on that kiss. Wood expands into writing about noticing:  Chekhov, he says, ‘appears to notice everything’.

Details in ‘The Kiss’  represent a point in that story where “form is outlived, cancelled, evaded.

‘I think of details as nothing less than bits of life sticking out of the frieze of form, imploring us to touch them.’

Magnificent.

A lot of these posts are first drafted at odd hours, when trying to get back to sleep after dealing     with various family health things. There’s about 120 odd half/three-quarters written drafts in the folder. I suppose everyone needs a hobby. 

Bob Dylan – the Nobel of Rhymney

Bob Dylan gets a Nobel. For literature, just in case you were thinking it’s for economics or anything.

Hmm.

I’m in the rather large camp which believes St Zimmy’s songs were best done by other people. I don’t like his singing much – his style, especially in his better-known songs from the ’60s, is very sneering, very off-putting.

And like others, I’m sure, I’ve heard too many bad buskers hooting ‘how does it FEEL???’ too many times not to feel a certain weariness.

I’ve only ever owned one Dylan album – Blood on the Tracks, which became the soundtrack for one of the numerous, not particularly happy, road trips I did around the North Island back in the ’80s.

It is, to be fair, pretty good, and ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ is one of the great ‘Track One, Side One’ songs of all time.

More recently, I downloaded a few of the mono mixes of some of his famous songs from the mid-60s.

Yeah, they’re good. But Dylan is a bit like the Beatles. We’ve been saturated in adulation for the “genius” of these “icons” for so long the colour and flavour has kind of leached out of them. It’s kind of difficult to tell if they’re really that good any more. Besides, I’m of an age group that grew up after they were already towering eminences, great cultural gods. The urge to lay about these icons with a hammer is never far away – or at least, to point out these Emperors might not have been naked but they did have many of the less personally admirable aspects of emperors down the ages.

And the Nobel? For literature? Dylan’s influence is huge but it’s musical rather than literary. It doesn’t feel right, somehow.

Dylan himself once said the band who did his songs best was Manfred Mann. The Dylan Disciples – of whom there are many- have always maintained this was one of the Bobsters’s great jokes.

Good one.

And finally: William Shatner does Mr Tamborine Man. As only Bill S & his singing hairpiece can.

Companions – for Book Day

August 9 is Book Day in the United States. Scanning the companionnews bulletins beaming out of that strange and excitable outlier*  from the rest of the English-speaking world, it’s difficult not to conclude that a quiet sit down with a long book for a week or two would do American citizenry a power of good.

New Zealand doesn’t have a Book Day. We probably should. We have days for lots of things, including public holidays for provinces which haven’t existed since 1876, and for the birthday of a monarch on a day which isn’t actually her birthday.

We should be able to manage a Stay In Bed & Read Day –  sometime around mid-winter, say.

Or – for Wellingtonians, anyway – whatever day the Downtown Community Ministry Bookfair is held. This is like a festival of second-hand books, and people queue in the rain for it (yes, seriously. In how many other cities in New Zealand do people queue in the rain for second-hand books?? ).

A few months back I stumbled across a bunch of Companion Library books at a second-hand bookstore in Petone. I don’t know the history to the Companion Library series, but I know it was a cheap way to get ahold of some of the great classics.

They were available on some sort of hire purchase plan, I think.  They were via mail order, and you got one every couple of months or something similar.  There was no actual ‘front’ and ‘back’ to each volume – each volume had two books, and you flipped them over and read in from each end.

They were cheap – all the books were well out of copyright, and I bet even for their cheapness someone was making a packet out of them. The first one my folks got for us was Alice in Wonderland, and I can’t for the life of me remember what was on the other side of that volume.

Had a huge effect – I had vivid dreams anyway, and here was a tale about a very vivid dream.

The volumes I read most often was the one which had Grimms Fairy Tales on one side and Hans Christian Anderson’s Tales on the other. Wore that one out. More vivid dream fodder, of course, with more than a touch of menace. And in the case of the Hans Christian Anderson stories, menace with moralism.

Aesop’s Fables was also a fave – and I notice now, looking back, that like the Grimms/Andersons volume, it was short stories. The thing I remember most about the Aesop’s Fables was discovering the origin of a few phrases (‘Oh, so *that’s* where “sour grapes” and “dog in a manger” comes from!’).

I presume the Companion Library has long since been discontinued. You can get all these on Kindles now. Probably for free or as close as makes no difference.

Anyway, Happy Book Day, wherever you are, and Happy Reading, on any day and any device.

 

*included especially for Steve Braunias

 

 

 

 

Poetry appreciation on the  Twitter 

This collection of poetry seems to be catching quite a bit of attention. I can’t think why.

The title itself is a bit of a non-sequitur and shows, perhaps, that poets might not be the most logical of thinkers.

Malcolm Bradbury. Thought for World Book Day

Rates of Exchange
‘…there are the politicians, and the priests, the ayatollahs and the economists, who will try to explain that reality is what they say it is.

Never trust them: trust only the novelists, those deeper bankers who spend their time trying to turn pieces of printed paper into value, but never pretend that the result is anything more than a useful fiction.

‘…. I am a writer, not a critic: I like my fictions to remain fictions.’

 

-Malcolm Bradbury, ‘Rites of Exchange’

Thought for the Day – Spilt Religion

‘By the perverted rhetoric of Rationalism your natural instincts are suppressed and you are converted into an agnostic. Just as in the case of the other instincts, Nature has her revenge. The instincts that find their right and proper outlet in religion must come out in some other way. You don’t believe in God, so you begin to believe that man is a god. You don’t believe in Heaven, so you begin to believe in a heaven on earth. In other words, you get romanticism. The concepts that are right and proper in their own sphere are spread over, and so mess up, falsify and blur the clear outlines of human experience. It is like pouring a pot of treacle over the dinner table. Romanticism then, and this is the best definition I can give of it, is spilt religion.’

 

T E Hulme

 

 

Thought for the day 

Comedy is not generated by a writer who sails to her desk saying, “Now I will be funny”. It comes from someone who crawls to her desk, leaking shame and despair, and begins to describe faithfully how things are. In that fidelity to the details of misery, one feels relish. The grimmer it is, the better it is: slowly, reluctantly, comedy seeps through.

Hilary Mantel on Elizabeth Jane Howard

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jan/30/hilary-mantel-elizabeth-jane-howard-novelist