‘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. 

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.

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


Marvellous-ish years, seething energies, and the trick of blogging upright

There is an elephant in the room – this computer,
an evolutionary change happening in our lifetime,
reducing our customs to fossils and converting
our children to new formats. As the Digital Age
powers on, I look wistfully at my books,
pen and notepad, and see that language is mutating.
Now the Web is a field of seething energies,
ready to extend and pool consciousness, is this
the transformation of the world to a unified virtual mind
or merely another noisy playground and marketplace?…

That is Roger Horrocks on the effect of the digital world on books, writing, literature, culture – and, ultimately, identity. The full piece is here and it’s well worth a read.

He doesn’t come to any conclusions – sensibly, I think. We’re in the middle of a revolution right now – and for once the word ‘revolution’ is not hyperbole – and it isn’t at all clear what the outcome will be.

Horrocks isn’t sure whether to be optimistic or pessimistic. Personally, I’m tentatively optimistic.

New Zealand has always had a very “thin” cultural scene – it is a function of our small size and distance from everywhere else. The internet has broken that down and will no doubt break it down further.

My optimism lies in Horrocks comments about the ‘field of seething energies, ready to extend and pool consciousness.’

It is in the process of wrenching our notoriously parochial cultural scene out of its small-town-ness: it is also breaking down hierarchies and – dare one say it? – the ivory towers of universities.

Technology is breaking down both distance and walls and this has only just begun, I believe. It makes our small size less telling, provides easy access to a more global perspective and ideas and, obviously, helps ideas get around.

History is also deepening. The passage of time itself is helping, of course. But there is, I’ve noticed, a real hunger to talk, argue and occasionally throw things about New Zealand’s history, amongst the generation coming through.

As for the choice Horrocks outlines in the last line quoted above: I don’t think its a choice. It’s both.

The trick is going to be making sure the extension and pooling of consciousness happens along with the noise.

Walking- ‘that suspensive freedom’


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Yours truly, above Lake Wanaka, last week. 
 
 
 
A Philosophy of Walking by Frederic Gros (Verso 2014)
 
 
Discovered this wonderful little book over the summer and finally finished reading it: apt, as it turned out.  I’ve not done enough tramping over the past few years, mostly for boring middle aged reasons. It’s high time I got back into it.
 

Must confess I thought, when I saw the title in good ol’ Unity Books, that only a French bloke would find the need to come up with a philosophy of walking.

Shades of Sartre in the scroggin;  Pascal in the polypropylene; Derrida in the long-drop.

 
In fact it’s not like that at all: it is uncommonly direct and clear, if a bit disconcerting at times.
 

 ‘We must really manage one day to do without “news”,’ Gros begins one chapter – one which seems to me to be the core of the book, headed ‘Eternities’.

This may sound strange for a journalist, but I know what he means. One of my favourite political philosophers, Michael Oakeshott, was dismayed to be told, by a star pupil, of an intention to go into journalism, telling the lad, after a long silence, that ‘I think the need to know the news every day is a nervous disorder’.  

 
I doubt Gros has read any Oakeshott: too English, too empiricist, to sceptical for yer average continental philosopher. 

But they might have quite a bit in common: Gros writes that 
 

‘…walking makes the rumours and complaints fall suddenly silent, stops the ceaseless interior chatter through which we comment on others, evaluate ourselves, recompense, interpret. Walking shuts down the sporadic soliloquy to whose surface our rancour, imbecile satisfactions and imaginary vengeances rise sluggishly in turn….You are no longer a role, or a status, not even an individual, but a body, a body that feels sharp stones on the paths, the caress of the long grass and the freshness of the wind….’


‘Chatter’ is the big no-no for Gros. For those of us who need a bit of solitude in our lives, it is more of a problem than ever: the ubiquitous smartphone, the addictive aspects of social media, are forever bleeping at us, trying to tug annoyingly at the metaphorical elbows of our consciousness.


Longer walks, of several days, bring perspective: away from the ‘chatter’, both interior and exterior. A walk, a hike – in New Zealand parlance, a tramp – allows one to do what Gros calls rejoice:

“rejoicing in that suspensive freedom, happy to set off, one is also happy to return. It’s a blessing in parentheses, freedom in an escapade., lasting a couple of days or less.’

‘Suspensive freedom’. I love that.

The freedom in walking lies, he says, ‘in not being anyone, for the walking body has no history, it is just an eddy in the stream of immemorial life.’


He is very good on what it’s like: he slows down and notices the process of walking.


There is the  ‘strange impression’ made by the first steps each day: you’ve made all the preparations, navigation, food, gear, timings, weather etc, and then

‘you head off, pick up the rhythm. You lift your head, you’re on your way, but really just to be walking, to be out of doors That’s it, that’s all, and you’re there.’

There is a need to walk slowly – well, some of us don’t really have the option – and to not be overcome by goals, by turning the walk/tramp into another thing to tick off your list.
 
‘Knocking the bastard off’, to borrow Sir Edmund’s famous phrase about Everest, certainly has its place.
 
But for most of us, walking should be the goal itself.
‘…the authentic sign of assurance is a good slowness….a sort of slowness that isn’t exactly the opposite of speed’
And:
‘Days of slow walking are very long: they make you live longer, because you have allowed every hour, every minute, every second to breathe, to deepen, instead of filling them up by straining the joints…When you hurry, time is filled to bursting, like a badly arranged drawer. 
‘Slowness means living perfectly to time, so closely that the seconds fall one by one, drop by drop like the steady dripping of a tap on stone. 
‘This stretching of time deepens space. It is one of the secrets of walking: a slow approach to landscapes that gradually renders them clearer, like the regular encounters that deepen friendship. Thus a mountain skyline that stays with you all day, which you observe in different lights, defines and articulates itself.’

This is all gorgeous stuff. 

There is, if you want it, a bit of Yer Ack-Shul Phillosophee: there are chapters on those famous, and not so famous, philosophers who have liked walking, and the book starts with a quote from Nietzsche


‘We do not belong to those who have ideas only among books, when stimulated by books. It is our habit to think outdoors — walking, leaping, climbing, dancing, preferably on lonely mountains or near the sea where even the trails become thoughtful.’

 
Which certainly knocks some of the the more grandiose or gloomy prognostications of Nietzsche into the proverbial over-brimmed millinery.

It is also something I’ve noticed about myself: the better ideas often come while out walking. This is not to denigrate being, in Nietzsche words, ‘stimulated by books’.


The old mental appetite is certainly stimulated – and fed – by books, as well as by conversations, chats over coffee, and shouting matches over the Shiraz, gesticulating over the Glenmorangie.


But it is digested by walking.  This is about balance, and the interaction between walking, thinking and feeling.


‘The climbing body demands effort; it is under continuous tension…It’s important not to weaken, but to mobilise energy to advance, to place the foot firmly and hoist body slowly, then restore balance.  

So with thought: an idea to rise to something even more astonishing, unheard of, new.
and then again: it is a matter of gaining altitude,

There are thoughts that can only occur at 6000 feet above the plains and mournful shores.’

Italics added.

Every page has a lovely little line like this. If you like walking, thinking, and just slowing down and noticing, you won’t regret getting ahold of this work.