‘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. 

Ain’t no cure for the summertime muse

This ‘relaxation’ thing…its quite neat, isn’t it? Must remember to try it again sometime.

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Sustenance and reward for writing words and things. Then deleting them and swearing a lot.
Napier has an establishment called the ‘Allergy Free Cafe’ – don’t get me wrong, it does good coffee, but I can’t help but think ‘surely, that depends what you’re allergic to’

Next door is the ‘Fat Latte Cafe’ which has to be a deliberate, firm, extended digit, to its neighbour. It’s also a lot more relaxed. The bods in the allergy free cafe all look uptight and very ill.

Oh, and the Fat Latte has a fantastic lambs fry and bacon.

Strongly recommend ‘The Ottoman Endgame’ (Sean McMeekin, Penguin, 2015)  for a host of reasons.

One – or rather, two, ‘cos they’re separate and they’re both important – is the historical context it lends to today. One of those contexts is the strategic one provided to New Zealand’s enduring Anzac legacy.

McMeekin provides a detailed and thoughtful analysis of just what the hell they were doing there, and also sets out what he sees as the biggest strategic blunder of the campaign – the option of landing in the part of the Ottoman Empire then called Alexandretta, now called İskenderun, was considered and rejected.

What attracted me to this book – apart from a few highly appreciative reviews from elsewhere – was a doco I saw last year on the Ottoman-Turkish winter battle in December 1914, which saw the Turks send an army over the mountains at the start of the winter, with most of the casualties coming from frostbite (a lot of the troops didn’t even have boots). They still gave the Russians a fright: a plan for a much more ambitious, and never attempted, invasion caused a Russian panic which led them to ask the Brits and the French for some sort of attack on the southern Turkish side.

Hence,  Gallipoli. The Russians were supposed to coordinate with the Gallipoli campaign, but they didn’t: they were more than happy to see the British, especially, batter themselves senseless in a stalemate and in any case the last thing they wanted was a British army in Constantinople, given the historic rivalry between the two powers in the entire region from Greece across to India.

The other insight is of course into today’s wars in the Middle East. McMeekin lays to rest a few myths around the “Sykes-Picot Agreement”, the perpetuation of which has a lot to do with the popularity of the film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. It was really the Sakarov-Sykes-Picot agreement and was reached in 1916 with Russia calling the shots because Britain and France had had their backsides kicked by the Ottomans at Gallipoli and Basra.

The Ottomans were supposed to be backward and useless – “the sick man of Europe” and all that, but here they were beating the crap out of the Allies.

So Russia got the lion’s – or the bear’s – share of the Sakharov-Sykes-Picot agreement which carved up the Ottoman Empire. Trouble was, in 1917 the Russians had a revolution, then another one, and it was all off. The Brits and the French redrew the agreement.

There was quite a bit of squabbling with the new Turkish regime, post-war – well, one of McMeekin’s points is it might have been “post-war” the way we usually think of it but it wasn’t post war for the Turks and nor was it, really for the Brits and the French, at least in the Middle East.

But then, I suppose, since when has it ever been “post-war” in the Middle East? Not for a wee while, anyway.

Anyway, highly recommended. It’s an excellent, clear and readable history, as clear as any history can be of this fractured and fissiparous region.

I pitched camp..well, when I say ‘camp’ I mean I rented a farmhouse..in a valley in the Hawkes Bay, all the better to write a lot. It didn’t have decent internet connection, which for about 30 seconds I was worried about before concluding it was exactly what was needed. Wrote in the mornings, when I’m brighter anyway and before the sun got over the hills and turned the cottage into a broiler house. Then went walking in the afternoon.

Got a little more than 14,000 words done, probaimg_2175bly at least a third of which I’ll dump as being not up to scratch, but its certainly a base to work off.

Kaikoura

 

Kaikoura is a favourite region. I’ve had numerous escape long weekends there in recent years:  it’s pretty much perfect because there are plenty of walks.

And I love that Coast Road.

Yeah.

The coast road.

If you have a writerly urge is part of the way you cope with life and that includes events like this one.

It can seem a bit self-indulgent, but what the hey. If you can’t be  a bit self-indulgent on a blog, where the hell can you be a bit self-indulgent?

(Genuine question.  As a slightly uptight,  culturally Presbyterian, Kiwi farmboy,  this is an area I probably do need some tips about).

…..Yes, *slightly* uptight. Don’t want to get too carried away about this or anything).

It’s included, in younger and fitter days, some great tramping trips, including climbing the magnificent Mt Tapaonuku back in the late ’90s, and several trips over the Kowhai Saddle, up Hapuku Valley and down through the other side.

Second time on that saddle was a landmark in a different way – going down towards the hut in the dry riverbed, I had one of those ‘hmm..will that collection of rocks hold my foot…yeah should be all right’ moments of hesitation.

And, seconds later a more dramatic moment involving turning a 180 degree turn as the rocks gave way and I struggled to hold my balance. One of the blokes in the group, who was ahead and below me, rekkined afterwards I’d hovered for several seconds and he thought I was going to be ok, before tumbling down the rock slope.

Looked magnificent, he said. Poetry in motion, or something.

Perhaps one of Ezra Pounds more deranged Cantos’, maybe.

The left knee has never been the same since.

Much more sedate visits since, including an immensely productive writing week in an old farm cottage last January.

But it’s a great part of the country: a mix of relatively sedate dairy land, the dramatic Mt Fyffe and the Seaward Kaikouras generally, and that magnificent, and now closed, road.

When I looked onto my digital photo file, I found nearly 200 photos of the region, about half from that road.

First visit was 1990, hitching through from Christchurch with a German marine biology student who had come out to see the whales. I hadn’t heard of Whale Watch at that point – it had been going a couple of years, if that – but word had spread and it was going to be the high point of her trip.

I’ve since done the Whale Watch thing myself: it’s great, though I found the dolphins we encountered more spectacular. About 500 of them, on the port side of the boat, and with the ones furthest away jumping higher, in great spirals, as if to say ‘Wee!! Look at us!!’

The same trip, we did the ultimate Kaikoura meal – crays from Nins Bin, and fried chips. Washed down with some Marlborough Chardonnay (Grove Mill, from memory).

The Kekerengu Store, ideally situated as it is between Kaikoura and Blenheim, is a compulsory stop-off point – the staff and owners are great hosts, the coffee packs the requisite punch and I’ve sat there, written up a journal or edited stuff I’ve been working on.

The shingle beaches – too dangerous to swim off, but wonderfully rugged and desolate. You look out, east, and feel you are on the edge of the world. Somewhere out there, half a hemisphere away, is South America.

It’s a great place to go, to gather your thoughts, and in that isolation locate and settle yourself.

Here’s hoping the geology can also settle itself.

 

‘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.

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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’

Book Recommendations – The Strange Death of Liberal England

The Strange Death of Liberal England by George Dangerfield
strange death

 

 

‘Along that row of distinguished and original faces there would pass from time to time, as lightly as a shadow upon the waters, an alarming, an alien, spirit. It invaded and effaced the dignified construction of Mr Asquith’s features, it crept about the corners of Mr Lloyd George’s eyes, with imponderable fingers it ruined that noble forehead which was Mr Winston Churchill’s, it reduced the hatchet lines of Mr McKenna’s face to the lesser proportions of a ladylike paper-knife.. a spirit dangerous and indefinite, animula vagula blandula, the Spirit of Whimsy, which only afflicts Englishmen in their weakness.’

 

I have been thinking of this book a lot lately and I’ve recommended it to several people.  It was one of those “formative books” – a book one reads as an impressionable age and has a powerful influence on the outlook.

I’m a firm believer that styles and methods of thought are more important – much more important in fact – than the actual content of those thoughts. Habits of mind are often unconscious, stem from a mix of influences and innate character, and serve to form thoughts and beliefs.

So although, in the case of this book, I didn’t agree with everything in it at the time, and probably do so even less now, Dangerfield’s  attitude to the world of public affairs, and those who conduct it, had, now I re-read it, quite an effect.

I can even remember where and when I bought it – shortly after moving to Auckland in 1985, at the David Thomas second-hand bookshop in Lorne St, which was part of a small oasis of slightly disheveled civilisation in the downtown CBD at the time. There were four along the O’Connell-High-Lorne St zone at the time – Rare Books, Jasons, and Bloomsbury, as well as this one. Five, if you count the library.

Nice and handy, too, to the Dominos and Just Desserts cafes.

Enough nostalgia.

‘The Strange Death of Liberal England’ is one of the few books I’d nominate for genuine classic status. It tells a great story – the kind of collective mental breakdown which swept over the British [ok, mostly English, and David Lloyd George] classes in the four years before the outbreak of World War One.

It is superbly written, generally with a dry ironic touch, but underneath this cool carapace some heated moral indignation bubbles and it occasionally bursts through.

It was about the breakup of a consensus, of assumptions about how their country – and, given the size of the British Empire of the time, the world  – ought to be governed. The future of Ireland, Lloyd George’s “People’s Budget” and the House of Lords’ self-defeating obduracy, votes for women, and the rise of the Labour Party dominate and served to break up that consensus.

As Dangerfield put it,

‘Whatever his political convictions may have been, the  Englishman of the ‘7os and ‘8os was something of a liberal  at heart. He believed in freedom, free trade, progress, and  the Seventh Commandment. He also believed in Reform. He was strongly in favour of peace – that is to say, he liked his wars to be fought at a distance, and, if possible, in the  name of God. In fact, he bore his Liberalism with that air of respectable and passionate idiosyncrasy which is said to be typical of his nation, and was certainly typical of Mr Gladstone and the novels of Charles Dickens.’

And he shows how widespread this worldview was, usually with a neat and deftly humorous touch, starting one section with,

‘In 1903, when Joseph Chamberlain, who had proved how insubstantial were party differences by being a Unitarian, a Radical, and a Conservative at one and the same time…’

It is character sketches like this which really make the book dance, because they are not just sketches of individual characters, they are used to show the spirit of the age. Here is Dangerfield on Arthur Balfour, the Conservative Party leader between 1902 and 1911: for Balfour, he writes,

 

‘…politics was little more than a serious game. He played it with the faintly supercilious finesse which belongs to a bachelor of breeding, and with a bitterly polite sarcasm which was quite his own. He had entered Parliament originally from that mixture of duty and idleness which made an English politician of the old school :in other words, because he could neither fight, preach, nor plead.  …He had become one of the more eminent of English philosophers at a time when English philosophy was at a low ebbb…

‘In his youth he had been known as ” pretty Fanny ” and indeed in those far days he looked rather like an attenuated gazelle. But with advancing age his face came more and more to resemble an engaging, even a handsome, skull : it carried into drawing-rooms and debates a special property of hollow mockery, its eternal memento mori which, since Mr Balfour was always affable and lively, gave him an air of mystery and even of enchantment.’

Any writer who can come up with the phrase ‘attenuated gazelle’ is someone I have to tip my hat in homage to.

Here he is on  Liberal prime minister Henry Asquith:

‘..ingenious but not subtle, he could improvise quite brilliantly on somebody else’s theme. He was moderately imperialist, moderately progressive, moderately

humorous, and, being the most fastidious of Liberal politicians, only moderately evasive. If he can be accused of excess it was in the matter of his personal standards, which were extremely high.’

My own copy of the book fell apart several years ago, I’ve since got ahold of some online excerpts and have ordered a new one from Abebooks.

It is, as those excerpts quoted above show, a joy to read if you have love history and good writing and possess a sense of humour.

It is also – because it was written in the 1930s – great to read a thoughtful book which considers Winston Churchill as just another politician, albeit a particularly colourful one, before the public monument he became post-World War Two.

Local parallels? I frequently found myself pondering this book during Helen Clark’s prime ministership. It seemed to me then quite possible we were looking at an endgame for the New Zealand Labour Party and its world view, mostly because of the inherently defensive approach to almost all policy issues.

Oh, and because Clark and Cullen at times reminded me of the Asquith-Lloyd George combination, albeit without Cullen wanting the top job.

But Clark’s cool rationality had a whiff of Asquith, and Cullen definitely had a touch of the Lloyd George at times, especially in his way with the wittily destructive phrase.

The travails which have befallen Labour since then have confirmed those thoughts from a decade ago.

And we may, now, be seeing a wider, world wide break up, with the rise of Trump-ism in the United States and the sentiment of ressentiment which that appeals to taking other forms elsewhere.

But more on that in my real job.

For now, fellow well-written-history-buffs: this book is a true classic.

That rare combination: a thought-provoking joy to read.

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


Thought for the day

To have a home is to become vulnerable. Not just to the attacks of others, but to our own massacres of alienation:our campaigns of departure and return threaten to become mere adventures in voiding.

– James Wood, ‘The Nearest Thing To Life’