Archive | December, 2012

Reading Journeys – the Great Adventure

25 Dec

The reading journey that we choose to follow is one of life’s great adventures. One book leads to the discovery of another. The work of one author directs us toward that of a new author. And what can be more exciting to the life of the mind than discovering the work of a powerful writer whom one hasn’t read before? Often these are chance encounters – a book review seen in a Sunday newspaper, a cover or title that catches the eye in a second hand book shop, the recommendation of a friend or stranger…  And this journey of the mind means that I, a teacher of economics, living in a provincial town in a country of no significance, can gain access to the fine minds and imaginations of people whom I could never hope to meet.

The great adventure begins in childhood. As noted, I loved the books of Tove Jansson and am rediscovering their magic as I read them to my two young children. A Christmas gift of The Chrysalids from a family friend led me to the works of John Wyndham and onto the science fiction section of the local library.

As an adult reader, my journey began when I’d completed my A Levels at college. For two years, I’d read nothing for my own pleasure, feeling that I ought always to be studying some academic text or other. In fact, I didn’t read that many textbooks either as I’d lost a couple of college books and was persecuted by the librarian every time I entered the college library and wasn’t allowed to borrow anything new. As you can see, I’ve been left psychologically scarred by the experience… The day after I’d finished my last exam, I rushed off to the local town library and took out four novels (that was the limit back in those days). My choice was informed by the sci-fi that I’d read as a teenager, but it set me off toward undiscovered lands. Of the four titles, I remember only two, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. I’d read Animal Farm a couple of times already and Brave New World was a re-read, but I devoured both books with relish. The library staff complained that the pickle had stuck the pages together (okay, bad joke…). The world lay trapped in the Cold War permafrost and Nineteen Eighty-Four seemed to be a book for the times. It led me to Orwell’s other books but also to finding out more about the composition of the novel. And in so doing, I came across books said to have influenced Orwell in writing his masterpiece – We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler, The Aerodrome by Rex Warner, brilliantly written novels of ideas that eclipsed pretty much everything that I’d read before. And The Aerodrome led me to Warner’s remarkable œuvre from the ’30s and ’40s.  The sci-fi section of the library, dominated then by the bright yellow covers of Gollancz SF editions was soon forgotten. There would be no more Eric Frank Russell or Jack Vance or A E van Vogt for me.

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Who knows where the journey may lead us?

Every itinerary is unique to the individual reader. At any time, it might take off in some new and unexpected direction. Inspecting, for the first time, the items on the bookshelf of someone known to us, provides us with an insight into their character, even when most of them turn out to be unread (beware, friends, I’m psychoanalysing you). Occasionally, desiring to connect with like minds, I’ve found myself herded in with others on that literary package tour we call the reading group. My enjoyment of the journey has always been diminished. My time for reading is too limited and precious to have eleven or twelve of the books that I read each year chosen for me by other people. The choices seemed to be books that I’d read before or ones I’d never have chosen in a thousand years. ‘Only connect’ ran the aphorism in E M Forster’s Howard’s End. Ah, well, seems I missed my connection, then. 

And onward the journey goes. There have been further occasions when mine has come to a temporary halt, studying for a degree, starting a new and highly demanding job, but always it’s been resumed. The writers of the Oulipo – Georges Perec, Italo Calvino, Raymond Queneau – the great Czech writers Milan Kundera and Ivan Klíma, modern American masters Joseph Heller and Ken Kesey, Thomas Pynchon and Harper Lee, marvellous mavericks such as Ismail Kadare, W G Sebald and Angela Carter, the fantastic worlds of the Latin American writers Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez,  Mario Vargas Llosa and most recently for me, Roberto Bolaño (The Savage Detectives is one of the best books that I’ve read to date)… and that’s to name but a few. Who knows what we might discover next?

Well, I’m off to my rural writing retreat in a few days’ time where there’s no Internet, so there’ll be no new posts from me for a while… For my tribute to the writers of the Oulipo, please see Extract 2 from ‘The Great English Novel’. Happy New Year!

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New destinations await us

All text and images © PSR

Cry Wolf

17 Dec

Lupine. It’s a splendid word to describe a magnificent creature. These days, almost everyone loves the wolf, an animal so like and yet unlike ‘man’s best friend’, its domesticated cousin. It hasn’t always been the case. Traditionally, the wolf has been the subject of loathing. Thoughts of this came to mind as I watched two pigeons, creatures held in similar contempt, pecking at an item of detritus in the street. Would we really wish them gone? Such was the case with the passenger pigeon, which went from super abundance to extinction in a matter of decades.

I’ve recently been researching into extinct mammal species for one of my writing projects. In so doing, I chanced upon one of Wikipedia’s numerous lists. This one was called ‘Timeline of extinctions’ and listed species that have become extinct during modern human times (going all the way back to 10 000 BC). I’d known about the three species of tiger that we’d lost in the 20th century, the Bali, the Caspian and the Javan. I had no idea about the wolves. In the last century and a half, wolf species have suffered an appalling rate of destruction. I knew, of course, about the disappearance of the Thylacine, the so-called Tasmanian wolf or tiger, which was actually a marsupial and therefore neither of these things. I’d known also about the persecution of the wolf. But for me, that list made shocking reading. It begins in 1876 with the loss of the Falkland Islands wolf. Over in Japan, the Hokkaido wolf was last seen in 1889, the Honshu in 1905. 1911 saw the disappearance of the Newfoundland wolf, 1925 that of the Kenai Peninsular wolf. 1935 was a grim year as both the Mogollon Mountain wolf and the Southern Rocky Mountains wolf became extinct, followed in the early 1940s by the disappearance of the Cascade Mountain wolf in 1940, the British Columbia wolf in 1941 and the Texas wolf in 1942, all hunted to extinction. The list ends in 1952 with the loss of Bernard’s wolf. Most of these extinctions were brought about deliberately.

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Cover image from Einar Østvedt’s book about my friend’s grandfather, the sculptor Dyre Vaa, illustrating a mythological specimen

‘Cry Wolf’, sang the Norwegian band, A-ha. Cry wolf indeed. That song was preposterous, of course (quite unlike its sublime predecessor, The Sun Always Shines on TV, but that’s another matter…). Wolves divide Norwegians. At my great friend’s wake in Asker (coincidentally, the hometown of A-ha’s singer, Morten Harket), the future of the Norwegian wolves was being debated. Opinion appeared pretty evenly split between those who saw their return as a menace and who wished to see them eradicated and those who saw the creatures as integral to Norway’s majestic wildernesses.

The creature has played a supporting role, almost always cast as the big, bad wolf, in Northern European literature. Think of The Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood, The Boy Who Cried Wolf and The Wolf and the Seven Kids… They embody our primeval fear of darkness and the forest. Their yellow, unblinking eyes stare out at us from between the trees. For us, the wolf’s howl signifies only desolation. ‘Howl! Howl! Howl!’ Shakespeare wrote as Lear lamented the death of his faithful daughter, Cordelia. The fantasy revivalists, Tolkien and Lewis perpetuated the negative image. Perhaps it’s unsurprising. England claims the dubious distinction of having exterminated the wolf five hundred years ago. It hasn’t all been bad press, though. Think of Romulus and Remus reared by the she-wolf, and of Mowgli too. Herman Hesse redeemed the creature to a certain extent in The Steppenwolf and Angela Carter captured its mystery and magic in The Company of Wolves. The current vogue for all things vampiric and werewolfish has brought the creature to greater prominence than ever.

The destruction of the inhabitants with whom we share this planet is humanity’s greatest shame. Let’s hope no further species or subspecies of these beautiful animals are lost to us in the future. Please do take a look at Extract from a War Novel (1), for my own take on the wolf’s tale…

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Wolf country?

Text and photo of Slovakian mountains © PSR. Book image © Dreyer, Oslo.

The Same Again or Different Every Time?

9 Dec

Terry Pratchett or George Orwell? Magnus Mills or Italo Calvino? Novelists tend to divide into two types – those writers who compose the same book, over and again, and those who write a different one each time. Familiarity or the strange? This is, then, a companion piece to my post, To read widely or read deeply?, but from the writer’s point of view this time.

There’s comfort to be drawn from reading what is essentially the same book, time after time. For myself, I derive much pleasure from reading the novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett. On the face of it, no series could be more formulaic – a novel published every other year over the course of forty or so years, each with a similar title – A Family and a Fortune, A Father and His Fate and so on – all placed in a big house in that imaginary Edwardian world where an upper middle class family is  utterly consumed by the process of tearing itself to pieces. The novels consist almost exclusively of brilliantly written dialogue – barbed comment, cutting aside, snide innuendo… To be honest, if you’ve read one, you’ve read them all. And still I love them. Familiarity breeds content.

I wonder, though, how satisfying it can be, to construct the same book, over and over. Didn’t Ivy, even if only momentarily, yearn to write a thousand page experimental piece or an allegorical novella? Maybe not. There’s pressure from commercial publishers, of course, for a repeat performance. You’ve created a marketable brand with an identified target market, the elusive ‘winning formula’ or ‘cash cow’. Why kill the goose that lays the golden egg? The so-called gentleman publisher used to employ this strategy to good effect, subsidising the work of his more adventurous and consequently less popular writers from the book sales of his mainstream authors. Regrettably, in the modern, oligopolised publishing industry, such houses are few and far between.

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Should the writer follow the same, familiar path?

Some of the authors whom I most admire have written oeuvres comprising radically different works, thematically, stylistically or by setting, perhaps even in all three ways. The writing of Georges Perec springs to mind. It’s a distant goal to which I aspire in my own writing. The English writer for whom I hold the greatest regard is probably William Golding (and who’s bound to be the subject of a future post). Golding’s first five published novels are inspirational, a sequence, to the best of my knowledge, unrivalled in English literature. After his best-known work, the pessimistic allegory Lord of the Flies, Golding wrote The Inheritors, his account of the extinction of the Neanderthals and then Pincher Martin, in which the eponymous anti-hero clings to a shard of rock in the middle of the ocean before sinking beneath the water. To my mind, there’s a slight dip in form with the story of damaged artist, Samuel Mountjoy in Free Fall but then comes the towering fifth novel, The Spire, that immense work of the fevered imagination, Golding’s investigation into the folly of mortal ambition. Following a period of such sustained brilliance, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Golding remained unable to write another novel for the next decade and a half. Julian Barnes, it seems to me, is another such. While my reaction to Barnes’ work is one of admiration rather than affection, and I’ve read by no means all of his output, his works strike me as markedly different in tone and style, one from another. Consider A History of the World in 10½ ChaptersStaring at the Sun and Before She Met Me. It’s a mark of his skill as a writer that they could almost have been written by three different authors.

Should the writer follow new paths, leading to unfamiliar destinations?

Should the writer follow new paths, leading to unfamiliar destinations?

Such matters need hardly concern the unpublished novelist. No commercial pressures for him or her. The chance to be asked to repeat himself or herself would be a fine thing. Published or unpublished, though, those committed to writing in the long term have that body of work to consider. In the final analysis, writing is about creativity and not about making pounds or dollars. If you have aspired to produce your ideal book and have remained true to yourself, even though it might fall short and there might prove to be no ‘market’ for the finished ‘product’, that, I would argue, is the greatest achievement.

So which type of writer do you prefer, the ones who stick to the tried and trusted formula or those who branch out into something new with each work? Which approach is better? It’s a false dichotomy, of course, but an interesting one, nonetheless. And since I’ve just discovered what that roundel button on WordPress’s post writing page does, here’s your chance to have your say:

Thanks for voting!

All text and images © PSR