‘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.

A reading wrap up…

Life During Waugh-Time

‘What is a “canty day”, Dennis?’
‘I’ve never troubled to ask. Something like hogmanay, I expect.’
‘What is that?’
‘People being sick on the pavement in Glasgow.’

Not a bad quote to start the New Year with.

It’s from Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One. I’m gradually catching up on some novel reading – very gradually. It has not been a good time for relaxed reading.

But anyway, reading takes you out of the day to day issues, and the not-so-day to day issues. I haven’t read as much as I would have liked this last year, which worries me less than the fact I haven’t written as much as I would have written.

Anyway, here’s some of the best.

Waugh’s ‘Loved One’ – a black tale about pet cemeteries in Los Angeles – isn’t his best. Better, much better, is Put Out More Flags, which I also read this year and which is one of the funniest novels I’ve read for years.

Almost every page has a gleeful gem. It’s set (and written) in the depths of World War Two, and features a bunch of over-privileged bright and artistic but useless young things suddenly faced with having to become useful in the face of Hitler.

As is often the case with Waugh’s better novels, it stems from his own deep, and often justified, self-loathing.

Which doesn’t matter. It is funny, and well-written funny.  One of the useless young things muses that he could claim to be a conscientious objector ‘but I’ve made such a thing of being someone without a conscience it would be a denial of everything I stood for if I said I have a conscience’.

He then ponders that, if he hasn’t got a conscience, why should remind saying that he does?

The main protagonist, Basil Seal, tries to calm his terrified girlfriend that she shouldn’t be afraid of the air raids given her artistic ambitions: an air raid, he tells her, is  ‘just the thing for a surrealist – it will give you plenty of compositions – limbs and things lying about it on places, you know’.

There’s a hilarious sequence of events around the publisher recruited by the Ministry for Information who brings with him a couple of statues to furnish his office and  – even better – with which to annoy and sorely vex the other bureaucrats.
It leads to a memo headed Furniture, supplementary to official requirements, undesirable aspects of.
He seems back a memo headed ‘Art, objects d’ , conducive of spiritual repose, absence of in the quarters of advisory staff.’
He gets or rather another memo is the circulated headed “flowers, framed photographs and other minor ornaments, massive marble and mahogany, decorative features of, distinction between.”

And so on.

The sequence is so hilariously strange – remember it is set when Britain Stood Alone, the blitz and all that – that it probably actually happened.

It’s a good read. Every page is a joy.

Carry On Up the Aro Valley

‘I’m sorry Steve..I don’t know anything about Gorgon except their name. But in Greek mythology, Gorgon symbolises primal darkness. Mystery. Devouring sexuality. These values speak to my community’s everyday values.’

‘I stand for all those things too,’ Steve pleaded. ‘And I also stand for balanced budgets and sensible solutions.’

We should have more elections like the one in Danyl McLauchlan’s latest novel, the second in his Aro Valley series, Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley.

Perhaps with the character of Steve leading a putative Blue-Green party. He seems perfect for it.

I enjoyed the first of the Aro Valley books: this one is better, more laugh out loud moments. The atmosphere is better realised – strange and at times quite cinematic.

There is a genre I’ve heard called Happy Gothic and while I’m not really sure what that actually might be but I suspect this fits the bill. Well, maybe not happy. The main characters, Steve and Danyl, are hapless and bewildered creatures, acutely conscious of their own intelligence and also acutely conscious of their inability to do anything particularly useful.

Aro Valley is, as it is in the first book, a portal to another world, full of uptight characters, at odds with the world who have found a haven of sorts in the alternative inner-city Wellington suburb. Oh, and whose perceptions may have been affected by various substances.

There are chunks which cry out for cinematic treatment – if Sir Peter Jackson wants to capture his home city’s more idiosyncratic aspects, and also make a good comedy, he ought to start by looking at this book as a basis for it. (And it would take a film-maker of Jackson’s skills to capture the book’s otherworldliness).  The sequence with characters trying to dodge a dog by running around Aro Valley under a bathtub alone is one I found difficult to read without picturing on the screen.

The trick of writing upright here

The work of another Wellington writer, Ashleigh Young’s ‘Can You Tolerate This?’ came trailing such an aura of acclaim I was a bit wary. Not dismissive, exactly. I’d seen her be interviewed by Toby Manhire at LitCrawl, and she was clearly someone to be taken seriously – quiet and thoughtful and seemingly a bit bemused by all the fuss.

The book won a global literary prize, forget the name of it, but it was huge and came with a sizable cheque.

The book really is that good. It’s a collection of thoughtful essays which sort of circle their themes and build over the course of the book. The writing is a delight – it is the opposite of what I call Ham Writing, which constantly calls attention to itself. But, from the memories of growing up in a central North Island town, to descriptions of yoga and chiropractic therapy (the title comes from a piece on the latter) it is writing which draws you in.

There is also something distinctively Kiwi about it. It is not just something explicit like Young’s description of getting messages from her brother, on his great OE:

‘In a way these emails reassured me that the world outside of New Zealand was still just the wor.d. It wasn’t automatically special by virtue of being far away. People had jobs and ate meals and got drunk and fell in love out there. Live continued there just as it did here, only wth different rhythms and weathers. This simple fact felt like a revelation to me.’

As has been for a lot of us. But it is more in Young’s way of sort of sidling up to her subjects and themes which seems very unassumingly of these shores, something that would have been grown and developed in these slender islands. You can be very identifiably Kiwi without having to rave about the All Blacks or don a swandri or call everyone ‘yous jokers’ and Young very much is.

Scott the one-off

Tom Scott was an early hero of mine. I’d decided, more by ruling out what I did not want to do, to aim for journalism by the end of my school years. And I was interested in politics, and current affairs, generally.

Scott was in trouble for being a journalist at the time: he’d been kicked out of Muldoon’s press conferences, mostly, from what I could make out, for writing the kind of things I had a tendency to blurt out in class in the general direction of my teachers.

Journalism would do,  I figured, until I worked out what I really wanted to do.

Scott did not just write – and draw – about politics. He also wrote about what it was like to cover politics. His columns in the Listener – which I used to devour in the school library – were full of colour about being in the Press Gallery. It sounded fun, if a little hair raising at times.

His memoir, Drawn Out, contains a few excerpts from his columns from the time – I haven’t checked back, simply because I don’t need to. Many of them are burned on the mental memory disc.

It has a lot about his awkward upbringing, his strange and tense, angry and sad relationship with his dad, who dubbed him ‘Egghead’.

In fact, Scott senior is perhaps the greatest comic character in the book, and perhaps in Scott’s life. One way – perhaps the best way – to cope with a father figure like this is to turn him into a comic character, and you can certainly see Scott doing this.

When Muldoon kicked Scott out of that press conference in 1980, Scott’s dad personally wrote to Muldoon. ‘Egghead had it coming!’ he cackled.

Scott muses that, after receiving this letter, Muldoon was not as hostile as he had been in the past, and that perhaps the old bugger was a bit more sympathetic.

Drawn Out is also a reminder that Scott’s one-off nature is that he can write as well as he can draw. Again, not in an ostentatiously, Ham Writing, sort of way.

But in a way that tells a story, tells it well and tells it memorably. His memoir is a joy to read, even if at times the life has not been a joy to live.

 

‘Totally written off, but there’s laughter at chaos…’

Which is a line from one of the Verlaines’ magnificent early songs. Roger Shepherd’s ‘In Love With These Times’ borrows its title from another of the first wave of Flying Nun bands, this time from the Clean. (it was also used for a Flying Nun compilation in the late 1980s).

It might seem an unusually cheerful title for a book about Flying Nun – after all, wasn’t the label’s stable notorious for bleakly gloomy music, jangly ennui and, to quote yet another lyric, ‘a depressing sense of the heretofore’?

Also, bands out of that stable rarely wrote or sang about being in love with anything. Whatever ‘Tally Ho!’ or ‘Frantic Drift’ or  ‘Doomsday’ might have been about, it wasn’t about being in love. (Well, Doomsday, maybe. )

Shepherd’s title though is apt because it is about ‘those times’.  He captures the atmosphere of late 1970s and 1980s New Zealand rather well, or at least how it was for a lot of younger New Zealanders.  New Zealand was by that time the Orphan of Empire, adrift in the south seas and living off what had been built between 50 to 100 years before and staring at a gradual decline.

The feeling – as noted above, alluded to by Ashleigh Young – that what actually mattered was happening elsewhere was even stronger then than it is now.

Flying Nun bands, at least the first wave, came mostly out of Dunedin for several reasons, and only one was because of that town’s notorious scarfie culture.

Dunedin was where that first wave of New Zealand prosperity grew first and grew strongest – refrigeration of lamb from the port, destined for the Old Country, back in the late 19th Century. By the time Shepherd’s book starts, the sheep’s back was breaking, and only kept in traction by subsidies.

A feeling of past boom, impending decline, if not catastrophe, hung over the country’s prospects, and in Dunedin, surrounded by buildings and institutions built for a long-faded boom, allied with that city’s much commented Scot Presbyterian legacy, did the rest.

Without making it all that explicit, the early chapters of Shepherd’s memoir carries the vibe of the time. And, of course, without necessarily setting out on a mission to do so, he and his label managed to push back against that sense of inevitable decline.

When bands like REM and the Smiths started appearing in the mid-1980s, you could listen to them and go, Oh, yeah, that’s the sort of thing that’s been coming out of Flying Nun since 1981.

By then, of course, the label was moving on and up.

Shepherd records – without excessive self dramatisation – his own battles, with alcohol, with recalcitrant bands and with the industry one might be tempted to call Big Rock.

Anyway, worth a read. It’s not just about the bands or the music. It’s a slice of New Zealand history, and an important one.

 

Postscript: As you can see from the photo, there were some other books as well. And, by the way, others not in the photo. But I’m tired. Maybe another day. 

 

‘Something undefined’ – Lydia Davis

Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis (Farrar Straus& Giroux) 2014

I mentioned Lydia Davis in a review of a collection of James Wood’s book reviews a couple of years back – I’d never heard of Davis, which is perhaps not surprising because my knowledge of fiction writers these days is pretty scant.

Trying, slowly, to rectify that, because as I put it in that earlier piece, the ‘rich, slow joy’ of reading is something I miss,  and I forget I miss it until I remember to actually do it.

This is a collection of short stories, jottings, dreams and almost-jokes. Of the latter, one,  ‘Negative Emotions’, had me chuckling with delight for ages after reading it.

There is often a tone of self-doubt – a knowing, ironic self-doubt, but it is a knowingness and irony which is not there for a smart-alecky effect. There is always a clear emotion behind such pieces, a sense Davis is taking the reader into her confidence rather than keeping us at bay.

One story, headed, ‘Not Interested’, begins

‘I’m simply not interested in reading this book. I was not interested in reading the last one I tried, either I’m less and less interested in reading any of the books I have, though they are reasonably good, I suppose.’

The way that sentence tails off into ‘I suppose’ is a nice touch.

Or:

‘Life is too serious to me to go on writing… Writing is too often about people who can’t manage. Now I have become one of those people. I am one of those people. What should I do, instead of writing that people who can’t manage, is just quick writing and then to manage. And pay more attention to life itself.’

There is a dream – Davis’s pieces are often fragments of dreams – called “The Party” which is incredibly descriptive: like a fast crane-shot on film which she describes arriving at the party somewhere unknown but vaguely familiar  with ‘a curving driveway  by lanterns among the trees… Under a lofty floodlit stone windmill.’ She described walking across gravel past ‘noisy fountains’ and entering the windmill going down stairwells rather than up,  visiting ‘a vast circular room, it’s raftered ceiling lost in darkness’… the centre of which the room is “a giant carousel motionless and crossed by powerful beams of light: white horses, four abreast, are harnessed to open carriages that rock back and forth on their bases; a ship with two figureheads rises high out of static green waves.’

Davis is very good on writing which really does make you see what she is describing: its a marvellous, rare and difficult art to pull off.

Sounds as well as pictures feature: there is a piece on onomatopoeia of a sort called ‘The Language of Things in the House’ – the washing machine and spin cycle goes ‘Pakistani, Pakistani’;,  the wooden spoon in the plastic bolstering the pancake goes ‘what the hell, what the hell’;  an iron burner rattling on its metal tray goes ‘Bonanza’; a pot in the sink with water running in it goes ‘a profound respect’;  rubber flip-flops (that’s jandals, to we New Zealanders) on the wooden floor goes ‘Echt’.

And there is a central sad story called The Seals which seems part memoir,  part something else:  something undefined.

On the strength of this,  my first reading of Davis’s work, I would say ‘something undefined’ applies to much of it. Fascinating.

IMG_8325

Reading – and how to do it wrong

IMG_7195Sometimes  you hear – or in this case, read –  something and just want to holler NO NO NO NO NO!

You want to take someone politely but firmly by the elbow,

or maybe their STUPID BLOODY THROAT,

take them gently to one side, sit them down, and talk gently to them about how they may have got things wrong or rather

HAVE MISSED THE ENTIRE BLOODY POINT.

In this case,  two things I have read over the past 48 hours which made me want to either give someone some kind words of advice

OR SLAP THEM AROUND THE BLOODY EARS.

And it is about reading.

The first was yet another one of those awful ‘One Thousand And One Books You Must Read Before They Haul You Off To the Undertakers And Start Making With the Formaldehyde’ lists.

I hate these, mostly because they are so damn bossy, and they have at their  root the notion that there is a class of books which are ‘essential’ to make you better as a person.

To which I politely beg to differ. Oh, and

BOLLOCKS TO THAT.

There needs, I think, to be lists of Books It Is OK To Hurl At The Wall Even If Your Cultured Friends Think This Makes You A Less Worthy Person.

I think I can claim to be a reasonably well-read sort of bloke, but a core part of my world view – in all spheres of life, and certainly those relating to personal taste –  is Each To Their Own.

I don’t, for example, think the fact I’ve never really “got” Jane Austen, despite having a reasonably determined crack at Pride and Prejudice back in my Uni days, makes me any less bloody cultured than those who do.

But if it rings your bell, go for your life.

The second thing which caused a bit of a spurt in the blood pressure department was something I saw on GoodReads yesterday which invited people to list the number of books they would like to read this year, as some sort of challenge.

And, again, NO NO NO.

Both these online missives make a similar mistake – even if this second one compounds that mistake with others.

Reading should never be a box-ticking exercise – in any way, shape or form.

Firstly, it is ok to not like books other many people think are great.

In fact, I think it is essential to not like books many other people think are great. It shows an independent mind, something any intelligent reader should possess and use with vigour, enthusiasm, and the occasional cry of THIS IS A LOAD OF ARSE.

And the books you do like, the ones that you will want to re-read later and will, each time you do, discover and delight in something you missed last time, will reflect – and possibly influence –  a mix of your own personality, your own circumstances, your own experiences of life and your own outlook on that life.

This will be a matter of quality, not quantity.

And above all, relax.

Book reading  – and yesterday, as noted earlier, was World Book Day – is not a syllabus nor an obstacle course.

It is one of life’s joys.

Don’t let anyone take that away.