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Archive for the ‘On Writing’ Category

Memory can be a fickle thing, subject to all manner of flaws in storage and recollection. There seems to be little logic governing what we remember and what we forget, though to suggest that the process is entirely random would be rather an unscientific assumption. There are clear differences in people’s capacity to remember information, with some displaying quite prodigious talents in recollection. We talk of short and long-term memory, of absentmindedness, of photographic memories, of good and bad memories – so far as ability is concerned. Yet, despite our differences in capacity, all of us remember a great deal more than we give ourselves credit for.

When I was a very young child I had an overzealous desire to know everything I’d ever done and felt an innate distress at the idea of information slipping away from me. In particular, I wanted to know how many times I had done things in my short life thus far – how often I’d caught the bus, how many times I’d had a bath, how many times I’d kissed the dogs, and how many times I’d said “Mummy, I love you,” all too audibly, in the supermarket.

This feeling really began to take hold around the age of four, when I first developed a sense of having done certain things a number of times already. I had, then, an inkling of a routine stretching into the past, and some understanding of the narrative of my life to that point. It baffled me that there were things my parents mentioned or told me about, things I had apparently said or done, that I couldn’t remember. Why couldn’t I remember everything? It seemed almost as though it had never happened.

Being the owners of an effete, pedigree dachshund and a rescued stray bitsa, Jason and Lady respectively, my father used to walk the dogs every afternoon in Centennial Park with my older brother and I. On the way home from a good, long walk, we’d stop in at the Nelson Hotel in Bondi Junction, and there my father would drink a middy or two of Reschs, whilst my brother and I made do with sarsaparilla and lemonade. Often, sitting in the afternoon beer garden, I found myself thinking – how many times have we done this? It was a routine that had been established before I had sufficient language to form coherent, narrative memories, and so my recollections were hazy and impressionistic – but the park had always been there, as had the dogs. How often had I been there? How many sarsaparillas had I drunk in my short life so far?

My brother began to collect bus tickets around the age of six. Back then the driver tore a bible-paper thin ticket from a long, flat piano keyboard-like array of stubs, and the flimsy little things were excitingly colour-coded: Purple, yellow, red and green tickets, for which my father’s order was always “One and two halves,” when he took us down to the beach. How many times had I been to the beach? I’d seen photographs of myself there as a baby, something I could not independently remember. When my brother began to collect tickets, it seemed there might be some means by which to answer these questions. If one always kept one’s ticket, then there would be a ready reference point for such information. But how on earth would I record the other things? The number of times I’d eaten food? The number of times I’d worn a certain shirt, or ridden the tricycle, patted Jason and Lady? How could I possibly store and recall all this information?

Perhaps the obsession with small details derived from the relatively limited world in which I operated as a toddler. The local geography had enough detail in it to keep me preoccupied for years, but once I had the basic features down pat, I wanted to know about things more intimately. I made an ineffectual attempt at collecting bus tickets too, but soon abandoned this in the face of that all too common feeling of the younger sibling – that everything one does is, in its execution, a pale imitation of the actions of the older sibling. It never occurred to me to write anything down, but this is not surprising considering how late I came to reading and writing, initially resistant as I was to books and letters.

Despite my frustration at not being able to recall everything, as the years passed, I realised that the bigger picture was more important than the minutiae. I didn’t really need to know how many times I’d had my haircut, for it was not these things that gave life its narrative, beyond forming the flat, regular palette on which all else was presented. Rather, I wanted to recall the events that stood out as exceptional; our family trips to the Blue Mountains, my brother’s attempt to flush me down the toilet, the time the window slammed down on my mother’s fingers. It was, after all, these things around which any narrative in life seemed to gravitate, and which formed the basis of moral and ethical lessons in the household and world at large. These events all carried both a story and a moral of sorts.

Take, for example, the infamous day on which my mother angrily threw a pair of tongs out the kitchen window and hit my brother in the face, completely by accident. The “snappers” incident was often conjured up as a great milestone in our lives; it was an early, pivotal example of an error of judgement and a lesson in caution. There was the time my brother and I left our racing car towels at the bus stop. Certain that we had lost them forever, and dismissing my father’s reassurance that we would get them back, we were both amazed when my father asked in the local shop on our return home and the towels were produced from behind the counter. This story added strong impetus to life’s narrative, both chronologically, as a way point, and morally and ethically, as an example of consideration, thoughtfulness and selflessness. Perhaps more importantly, despite its less salubrious nature, there was the famous incident that occurred at the Pizza Hut restaurant in Bondi Junction, circa. 1977.

This last event stands out because it was the first example in my life of a written diary entry, of deliberately recorded information. My brother had been given a pocket appointments diary with a week to a double spread. After dining out at the Pizza Hut that night, we returned home to giggle uncontrollably for hours about what had taken place in the toilets. My brother summed this up very nicely when he sat down at his desk on our return.

“Boy fell in trough at Pizza Hut,” were the exact words he wrote in his diary that evening. And indeed, some poor lad, stretching well beyond his capacity to reach the chain, had overbalanced and fallen face-first, then down sideways, right into the pisser, with its frothy flow and yellow mints.

“Boy fell in trough at Pizza Hut,” is a line that has been quoted many times since by my brother and me, and, for a long while, it was my favourite memory. I wonder in retrospect whether this was in part because, for the first time in my life, I’d seen the clear relation between something I’d witnessed, and the written version of the events. Either way, it was an early example of how we can record and shape our memory of things with language that is both succinct and arresting. It presented a whole new range of possibilities so far as solving the problem of remembering was concerned. I still value my brother’s early chronicling of this event to be one of the key snippets of narrative non-fiction. Its total and utter insignificance historically is irrelevant and in no way detracts from its long occupation of one of the summits of the very spike and trough graph that constitutes my childhood recollections.

However much I might have been inspired by my brother’s efforts and, however keen I was to record information, I didn’t make any real attempt at keeping a diary until 1983. For Christmas the year previous, I was given a small appointments diary by my friend Marcus – he was from South Africa and the diary, appropriately, had a cheetah on the cover. It was some time before I got around to writing anything in it, and, indeed, the only time I really used it was to begin counting down the days til my birthday; a rather pointless task, it must be said. When my birthday did actually arrive, I made a note of the presents I had received, and after that, the diary fell into a drawer somewhere and was, so far as I remember, not used afterwards. It was thus not until 1986 that I truly began to keep a diary. This too was a small appointments diary with seven days to a spread, and very little room in which to write anything. All the same, inspired as I was by the Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, I at least had a much clearer understanding of what a diary really could be – of the sort of information one might record, and in what style.

Still, to begin with, my diary was too small to contain any strong narratives. Invariably my efforts did not go beyond such brief entries as “Gus stayed over. Played Dungeons and Dragons. Had meatballs for dinner.” It was hardly a very exciting chronicle, yet it was a chronicle nonetheless, and once I’d begun to write the diary in earnest, every day, I didn’t look back. Indeed, from around April 1986 to the end of that year, I didn’t miss a single day and diligently filled in the admittedly small rectangle provided for each day. For Christmas that year, I received a new diary for  the coming year, which was significantly larger – an A5 book with a day to a page, though with Saturday and Sunday squashed together on a single page. I didn’t hesitate to make full use of the greater space that was available to me, and from January 1 1987, I diligently wrote a full entry for each day throughout that year.

It may surprise some to hear that I have never, ever missed a day since. Indeed, from April 1986 to the present, I have recorded every single day of my life in a diary, always following the same rule – that the page must be filled completely. In 1988, I continued with an A5 diary, but this time, had a full page for each day of the weekend. Using a diary of this size was standard practice until 1998. That year I began to use a full-sized, A4 diary, and have continued to do so to the present. I always fill the entire page, and I never allow a day to go unrecorded.

Now, of course, this may seem like some impossible task, given that one can hardly expect to be in a position to sit down and write a diary entry at the end of every night. Of course, there are all too many occasions when this is not possible. Consequently, I have written the entry at a later time, sometimes as much as a week later, always, however, maintaining the fiction that it was written on the day itself. When I travel I take the big, heavy thing with me wherever I go, which, considering I have, for the last twelve years, used a mere day-pack for every trip I’ve done, means that it constitutes quite a significant part of my otherwise minimalist baggage.

There have, too, been several incidents where the diary has caused problems. On four known occasions it has fallen into the hands of others, or been read illicitly, thus causing emotional crises and much embarrassment. Despite this, I have never considered not writing my diary. I suppose that if I behave honourably there should be no cause for suspicion and no need for my partner to dip into my diary. Generally, I trust that people will be honest and trustworthy, being good enough not to read my diary. Still, I have ultimately been forgiving of those who read my diary, as my behaviour certainly warranted it. Whatever the case, the show must go on.

And so the diaries continue to accumulate. Mostly I write the entry before I go to bed, but often I am too tired, lazy, or otherwise engaged, in which case I try to do it the following morning. Either way, the process takes me roughly ten minutes and is thus subject to the mood in which I approach the task. It is also subject to my ability to remember events. Even a few days later, it can be very difficult to find anything to write about a run-of-the-mill Wednesday. Sometimes this provides a great opportunity to sum up a recent emotional situation, to flesh out an idea, or to provide an update on current affairs – yet it often hardly says a great deal about the day itself.

In many ways, this is a good thing, for the biggest limitation of my diary writing is the day-to-day format. Limited to one page, it is difficult to go very far with any narrative at all and, often feeling the need to record basic information about the day, I lack sufficient space or time to discuss emotional and personal developments. I suspect that much of my diary is extremely bland, with some very engaging passages here and there, driven and inspired by emotional investment in the content. This usually happens at exciting turning points: – during the beginning or breakdown of a relationship, when travelling, when beginning a new course of study, or a new project. It can also stem from an uplifting and exciting experience – a great gig, an excellent party, or just a desire to wax lyrical about a beautiful morning at the beach. When I approach the task with enthusiasm, I always write a much more interesting entry. The writing process also helps me to take charge of narratives in life and put the present into context. I have found this a valuable aid in coming to terms with things.

I have often asked myself what is the purpose of all this record-keeping. It is, as much as anything else, a burdensome habit that I could not possibly break for fear of the scale of regret it might bring about. I’ve made it this far, with a record of every single day of the last twenty-six years of my life, and I’m not about to stop in a hurry. I used to dip into my diary a great deal more, either to satisfy nostalgic urges, or simply to find the date of a particular incident. When I wrote volume one of my autobiography Sex with a Sunburnt Penis in 1997, I relied heavily on diaries for inspiration and enhanced recollection.

On this latter score, the diary is an invaluable tool. I have always been considered to be a reliable source of historical information in the personal lives of my friends and acquaintances, due to my ability to recall dates, times and seasons of events. I can usually narrow something down sufficiently to pinpoint where to look in my diary, when finding the exact date of a particular event is the goal, provided, of course, I actually made a record of it. For me, personally, the best thing about the diary is that it allows me access to memories I might otherwise not have, even where the diary entry itself is brief and inadequate. I can open to a random date, in a random year, read the entry, and almost invariably picture the events once again. It is rare that I cannot do so, and yet, without such a jog, would I ever have remembered that otherwise unremarkable day again?

The diary also gives me an excellent ability to examine progress in my life. Perhaps my favourite use of it is to see what I was doing on the same date a year ago, or, perhaps, five years ago. It is a rare opportunity to put life more into context. The vividness with which I can recall events with the aid of the diary entry also allows me to be nostalgic in a very pinpointed manner.

One might ask, but isn’t it better to forget sometimes? Certainly it is, and one of my biggest problems is an inability to forget things, particularly where I need to move on. My memory, particularly my emotional memory, is simply too good, and I carry things around with me for a lot longer than I ought or need to. In part, I blame my diary-writing for this. After all, writing things down is said to be a strong aid to memory, even without reference to the written information. Yet, considered in the light of my early obsession with the recording of information, my subsequent years at university studying history, including a PhD on early Medieval Italian historiography, my habit of writing autobiographical memoir, short stories, novels and poetry, my presence on several online social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus, my seemingly insatiable desire to photogaph everything and archive it, and, of course, this blog, it seems that perhaps I was cut out to be an historian after all, be it of my own life, or, for that matter, the lives of others.

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This is the transcript of a talk I gave on Alain de Botton’s “The Art of Travel” for my creative writing masters, c. 2005.

Alain de Botton has made a name for himself writing popular philosophy. In a review of de Botton’s best-selling Consolations of Philosophy, in the Independent, Christina Hardyment wrote: “Singlehandedly, de Botton has taken philosophy back to its simplest and most important purpose: helping us to live our lives.” In The Consolations of Philosophy, de Botton considered the works of six great Western philosophers – Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche – and drew from them ideas he found of particular value and relevance to modern life.

This was a theme he had already explored in depth in his earlier publications, Essays in Love, published in 1993 when the author was only twenty-three years old, The Romantic Movement, 1994, Kiss and Tell, 1995 and the best-selling How Proust can change your life, published 1997.

Philosophy, poetry and theory do not normally attract popular attention owing to a misguided conception that they bear no relation to the practical and exist solely for the gratification of intellectuals commonly derided for their social disjunction. What de Botton succeeds in doing so masterfully is to reveal the simplicity and humanity of much philosophical writing, poetry and theory by putting it into the context of personal experiences which are familiar to all of us. At the same time, whilst locating material parallels for these ideas in the quotidian, he avoids making them appear mundane or banal. The high brow becomes palatable by removing its intimidating veneer, but without cheapening or ridiculing the evident seriousness with which much of these ideas were initially produced, except where were they were, to some degree, designed to be amusingly provocative.

In the Art of Travel de Botton examines themes in the psychology of travel; how we imagine places before we have visited them, how we interpret places upon arrival, and how we shape our recollections of places upon our return.

As is the case with How Proust can Change your Life, The Art of Travel is really a collection of essays. The text is divided into five parts under the thematic rubrics of Departure, Motives, Landscape, Art and Return. Each of these parts is further subdivided into chapters with subtitles such as On Anticipation and On Travelling Places. On the title page of each chapter, de Botton provides a sort of itinerary for what is to come; a handy list accompanied by thumbnail illustrations not only of the place or places he intends to discuss, but also the guide or guides through whose eyes or with whose thoughts he will consider the place or places. Thus, in the first chapter, On Anticipation, de Botton considers his own locale, Hammersmith in London, and his impending holiday destination, Barbados, through the eyes of Joris-Karl Huysmans. In his 1884 novel, A Rebours, Huysmans’ “effete and misanthropic hero”, the Duc des Esseintes, attempts a journey to London. He makes it as far an English tavern near the Gare St Lazare, where, after a meal of oxtail soup, smoked haddock, roast beef and potatoes, two pints of ale and a chunk of stilton, he is overcome by lassitude.

“He thought how wearing it would be actually to go to London, how he would have to run to the station, fight for a porter, board the train, endure an unfamiliar bed, stand in queues, feel cold and move his fragile frame around the sights that Baedeker had so tersely described – and thus soil his dreams. ‘What was the good of moving when a person could travel so wonderfully sitting in a chair? Wasn’t he already in London, whose smells, weather, citizens, food and even cutlery were all about him? What could he expect over there but fresh disappointments?’”

De Botton applies the lesson of contrast between anticipation and realisation to his own experience of a holiday to Barbados. The promised lures of a travel brochure with its palm trees and spotless beaches are soon darkened by a cloud of anxieties. Shortly after arrival, fretting about concerns he ought to have left behind, de Botton notes that:

“A momentous but until then overlooked fact was making its first appearance: that I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island.”

He adds:

“My body and mind were to prove temperamental accomplices in the mission of appreciating my destination.”

In the chapters that follow, de Botton continues with this clever interspersing of accounts of real and imagined journeys with personal, anecdotal accounts of his own travel experiences. The tight and entertaining summaries of the thoughts and ideas of his guides make clear and immediate the experience of these writers, artists and thinkers. The anecdotal accounts make even clearer just how quotidian are the concerns of many of his guides, and are further enriched with photographs of his own personal spaces and acquaintances.

He applies the techniques of the anthropologist and ethnographer in examining social artefacts and extrapolating from them about the society they represent. In describing the exotic nature of an overhead sign in Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, he writes:

“A bold archaeologist of national character might have traced the influence of the lettering back to the de Stijl movement of the early twentieth century, the prominence of the English subtitles to the Dutch openness towards foreign influences and the foundation of the East India Company in 1602 and the overall simplicity of the sign to the Calvinist aesthetic that became a part of Holland’s identity during the war between the United Provinces and Spain in the sixteenth century.”

De Botton’s analysis of cultural artefacts extends to an exceptional empathy with the subject matter of artists. His chapter On Travelling Places which includes a study of places of transit such as services stations, airports and roadside diners, is a masterful combination of art appreciation, focussing primarily on the twentieth-century American artist, Edward Hopper, and extrapolation with personal, anecdotally driven musings.

In Chapter 4, On Curiosity¸ de Botton describes his first experience of Madrid, to where he travelled in order to attend a conference. Having been advised of Madrid’s many attractions, he finds himself overcome with an intense lethargy upon arrival.

“And yet these elements (ie. the sights of Madrid as described in his guide book and assorted brochures) about which I had heard so much and which I knew I was privileged to see, merely provoked in me a combination of listlessness and self-disgust at the contrast between my own indolence and what I imagined to be the eagerness of more normal visitors.”

He contrasts his own lack of enthusiasm with that of his guide to the chapter, the German explorer and Botanist, Alexander von Humboldt, who was driven by a powerful urge to visit foreign lands. The chapter serves to establish the difference between the known and the unknown – von Humboldt’s explorations take him to uncharted places, whereas de Botton feels overwhelmed by the seemingly meaningless level of detail available to him through his guidebooks. The philosophical point of the chapter is to establish an understanding of what lies at the heart of curiosity and the degree to which it is personal and contextual.

De Botton writes:

“In the end it was the maid who was ultimately responsible for my voyage of exploration around Madrid. Three times she burst into my room with a broom and basket of cleaning fluids and at the sight of a huddled shape in the sheets, exclaimed with theatrical alarm, “ola, perdone!”

De Botton not only contrasts his attitude to Madrid with von Humboldt’s attitude to South America, but also highlights their respective realms of exploration. Again, the ideas he explores are firmly rooted in highly illustrative personal anecdotes, and the success of his anecdotes lies not merely in the ideas they are designed to illuminate, but in the level of personal detail he provides. He appears wholly honest with us, occasionally pushing the envelope of self-deprecation to the point of humiliation. He informs us of the flavour of a packet of crisps he ate in Madrid, tells us of a hair he found attached to the sideboard of his bed in a hotel in the Lakes District, and describes the sound of the timer on a microwave on a train.

In many ways the core to de Botton’s philosophical approach in The Art of Travel can be found in his chapter on Ruskin. He focuses on Ruskin’s ideas of the importance of “seeing” and “appreciating”. Ruskin worked keenly to promote the teaching of drawing in nineteenth-century Britain, believing that drawing would teach people to have an eye for beauty and to appreciate detail, thus making them happier by enriching their everyday experience. For Ruskin talent was an irrelevance – it is not ability as an artist that matters, merely the attempt to draw that is important, for, Ruskin argues, drawing teaches us to see.

“A man is born an artist as a Hippopotamus is born a hippopotamus; and you can no more make yourself an artist than you can make yourself a giraffe. My efforts are directed not to making a carpenter an artist, but to making him happier as a carpenter.”

His aim was to teach people to spend time to appreciate the detail and complexity, or indeed, simplicity that made something beautiful, and to notice beauty in things that might not be obviously beautiful. Ruskin was fervently opposed to people who travelled and looked, but did not see. He wrote:

“No changing of place at a hundred miles an hour will make us one whit stronger, happier or wiser.”

In many ways de Botton’s intention mirrors that of Ruskin, though he is hardly about to suggest that we take a sketchbook with us on holiday. Rather, he impresses the importance of remembering how rewarding it is to appreciate things with the eye of a sketcher. He is equally keen to make us “see.”

“The only way to be happy is to realise how much depends on how you look at things.” Your own viewpoint will fix feelings far more solidly than any vista: “If you have to rank how happiness comes about,” he argues, “beauty is a worryingly weak ingredient, in terms of shifting mood.”

This key injunction to learn to “see” underlies every major idea presented in The Art of Travel.

Despite the apparent variance between many of the places and the historical figures upon whose thoughts de Botton draws in The Art of Travel, each selection of place or person is so apposite as to seem almost inevitable. His combination of personal, anecdotal detail with equally personal anecdotes from his subjects ensures a specificity and intimacy that engages. It is only in his chapter on Provence, aided by Vincent van Gogh that one feels his point is rather laboured. It still holds our interest but lacks the charm and economy of his writing elsewhere in this book.

De Botton’s works have been bestsellers – selling in the many hundreds of thousands in many different territories over the last eleven years. He has written and presented two TV series based on The Consolations of Philosophy and Status Anxiety. His work has also been characterised as ‘popularisation,’ yet his books are in fact attempts to develop original ideas (about, for example, friendship, art, envy, desire and inadequacy) with the help of the thoughts of great past thinkers. There is much that is original and, indeed, amusing in his application of the ideas of the people upon whose thoughts he has drawn. As stated above, his “popularisation” does not come at the expense of intellectual integrity and he thus avoids the lowest common denominator as a benchmark for his relativism. De Botton has been described as a “Mass-market metaphysician,” a term which could be misconstrued as a pejorative, but is not intended as such.

For an aspiring writer The Art of Travel is almost as frustratingly neat as it is delightful to read. The end result is a book of theory and philosophy that reads with the ease and accessibility of a travel guide. It comes effectively to constitute a companionable treatise on Romantic aesthetics.

It has been said of de Botton that his musings are akin to an accessible W. G. Sebald, equalling his gravitas, though perhaps falling short of the depth of Sebald’s personal reflections. De Botton’s strength lies not only in the quality of his writing, which, for its complexity, shows no signs of impenetrable flabbiness, but in the powerful ideas to which we can all easily relate. His scope covers all aspects of travel, from the quotidian journey to the bus-stop, to international flights and expeditions to unknown regions. Essentially de Botton’s purpose in writing The Art of Travel is to promote further the importance of applied philosophy as a way of enriching life.

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I’ve been meeting with Dr Fantasy a lot lately. He and I are writing a TV show together and we have a lot to talk about: the plot, the characters, the arcs, the tone, the mood, the aesthetics. Number one, of course, is the plot and working out what happens in each episode. We have completed six so far, all of which have been the result of a process of lengthy discussion. Dr Fantasy makes his suggestions, and Mr Plausibility makes his. Oh yeah, that’s me, Mr Plausibility.

Workshopping is a common enough approach in writing. Many writers use their friends as sounding boards – simply beginning to discuss something can highlight issues of story or character. It works rather in the same way that tossing a coin does. It comes up heads, but then you know you wanted tails. It’s not the result that matters, it’s just that tossing makes you feel the right answer in your gut. I don’t want to draw too many parallels between talking and tossing, but there you go.

I have a lot of experience in workshopping from doing a Masters in Creative Writing along with many hours spent discussing work with other writers outside of university. It’s also fair to say that I learned a very great deal about process and structure through discussions with my PhD supervisor, Professor Rosamond McKitterick, irrespective of the fact that my PhD was in late Roman / early medieval Italian history. She deserves credit as my first real editor. Dr Fantasy too has a great deal of experience in workshopping through his studies in communications and later drama at NIDA. No longer precious about our work or ideas, we can make all manner of bold suggestions for our characters, reject them, pick them up again, rework them, and perhaps discard them altogether, or in they go.

Dr Fantasy, whose show it is, and who has kindly taken me on as co-writer, is fond of the expression “It’s television!” I’m fond of it too, for it allows for all manner of melodramatic situations.

“Why not? Who cares? It’s TV, that shit happens on TV.”

And, indeed it does.

Dr Fantasy, like a sorcerer, conjures scenes from the great miasma of television and Mr Plausibility refines them, within the bounds of reason. Now I don’t mean to suggest that Dr Fantasy isn’t also a realist. His concern for plausibility, for characters to remain true to their personalities, goals and motivations is no less strong than mine. Yet, Mr Plausibility’s job is, like the devil’s advocate, to ask every question there is to be asked about why a person would say a particular line, take a certain course of action, do one thing and not another.

The process always starts with a question. Sometimes as big as: “What’s going to happen in Episode 6?” A blank canvas can be daunting, but two people can circle this very effectively if they’re thinking clearly. I like to lie down, Dr Fantasy loves his notepad, but either way, we make ourselves comfortable and just talk. The important thing is to keep talking. Thinking too much can be detrimental – you can get bogged down. Pause, certainly, but keep talking about ideas. What’s good about them, what’s bad about them. Even seemingly irrelevant tangents can flavour the vision of the characters, so it’s worthwhile voicing some of the more peculiar ideas which seem initially unworkable.

“How about this,” says Dr Fantasy. “Let’s take it out of Sydney – focus on Frederic (our main character). Get some different settings. Like a country house or a big mansion somewhere.”

“The Blue Mountains could be the go,” I suggest. “It’s misty, cold, winter. There’s a big wedding he’s shooting and someone goes missing.”

“Yeah, I like that. Maybe Bowral or something, you know, southern tablelands. It’s a big wedding, like some media mogul or something – his daughter is getting married.”

“She looks like Miranda Kerr.”

“Tasty. She’s marrying a guy called Brady.”

“American?”

“Why not?

“How about this. The old media guy is like Citizen Kane. He calls his elderly wife Rosebud. He’s a bit of a Murdoch figure, but perhaps less, I dunno, sinister.”

“Good, good. But how does Frederic get to the wedding? Who gives him the job?”

“I dunno. Maybe he meets some old cougar in a bar. Hell knows.”

“Ok, how about this,” says Dr Fantasy. “An old friend of Frederic’s is in town. A real heroic, Hansel-type dude. He’s American, called something like Cory McFlynn, or something.”

“I like it.”

“The opening scene is him and Frederic, paintballing. They’re chasing each other, maybe a montage over the intro. Then in the cafeteria – Cory invites Frederic to the wedding. He knows the daughter. Maybe he’s been banging her on the sly.”

“Or maybe he knows the dad, the old media mogul. Roland. Roland Chandler. Maybe Cory worked for him for years. When he was starting out he was a rising star of a photographer, Roland was still hands on, editing the newspaper or whatever. He was a bit of a maverick like Rupert, and then he sold out. Cody’s an old family friend, he’s the best in the business.”

“Cody? or Cory?”

“Hey, Cody, why not? They want him to shoot the wedding.”

“Maybe,” says Dr Fantasy, “he likes to suck a dick here and there and he’s Roland’s old bum- chum.”

“It got him that feature.”

“Moved him up the ranks.”

“Maybe Roland’s a bit of a media guru, when he was younger, he lectured in journalism. Cody was one of his students.”

“His wife is very sophisticated. She’s French, she doesn’t care that he likes boys on the side.”

The above is a pastiche of a considerably longer conversation held only recently during which the plot of episode 6 was taking shape. It’s always a genuinely collaborative process with each of us refining each other’s ideas as they emerge, taking them to extremes and then trimming them into plausibility. Once a pool of information has been put together, such as that contained in the above exchange, we filter it for clichés and give people names that sound less like they derive from cheesy sitcoms or Restoration dramas.

Once we had developed a working framework for the episode, the debate found its biggest point of contention: the timing of a blow-job.

“Look,” said Mr Plausibility, “if Miranda’s going to catch this chap Cody giving her dad a BJ and then go riding off on her horse at dawn, only to get lost in the heavy fog of the southern tablelands, then surely we have to ask the question of why in hell has this old chap stayed up all night only to have a fire-side brandy-fuelled blow-job from his sycophantic former bumchum at five thirty AM on the morning before his daughter’s wedding?”

“Hey, who cares,” says Dr Fantasy. “Does it matter? They’ve been talking all night, sitting by the fire – maybe a little saucy line of coke or two. They’re hardcore night owls with plenty to talk about. Maybe all the men were sitting up late, playing cards, smoking cigars, the odd game of chess. Then, just after everyone goes to bed, down comes Miranda, all bleary-eyed, on her way to get a restless snack from the kitchen, when bingo – she sees Cody crouched over her dad’s lap working his magic for that next promotion.”

“But, dude, the guy’s like sixty. Is he really going to be up that late? Wouldn’t the saucy old fruit retire a good deal earlier, say one o’clock, which would still constitute a pretty late night? He’s got a wedding on the next day.”

“Maybe it’s not dawn then. Why does it have to be dawn anyway?”

“Because we want Miranda riding off at dawn – it’s a visual thing, we want that silver grey morning light through the fog, so we need to have moment of shock in the morning. You know that’s how you want it.”

“Of course. But why can’t she ride off in the middle of the night, and then Frederic and others go looking for her in the morning?”

“But, that’d be crazy. I mean, who would go off on a horse in the middle of the night in winter in a nightie when it’s freezing cold and dark out in the country? She’s a sensible girl. Yes, she’s in shock, but at one or two in the morning, she’s far more likely to go flop on her sister than hop on her horse.”

“Why not? She’s upset, she’s crazy. She’s not thinking. It’s a brain-snap. Hey, come on, it’s television!”

“But…”

Anyway, you get the drift. The debate continued over two further sessions. How could we make the timing work? How could one event lead to another in a smooth and ultimately plausible transition? Often it seems as though one is patching over things, looking for any means of bridging the distance, of establishing a suitable flow. Timing has always been one of the biggest issues with writing, especially when all the events of a story or show are stuck within the tight constraints of a weekend or even a single day. There is always the option of a complete overhaul of events, but having seen the dramatic possibilities of one course of events and having already worked characters and situations to fit around these, it seems as though finding a way through is the first priority.

Dr Fantasy certainly recognises the need for tight scheduling, but he is perhaps more willing to use larger bandaids than Mr Plausibility.

“Sometimes, you take this plausibility thing too far, you know,” said Dr Fantasy. “Sometimes you’ve gotta let it go.”

“Well, they don’t call me-

“Mr Plausibility –

“Mr Plausibility for nothing.”

Either way, we got there in the end, and of course, I have no intention of revealing further details of the plot – not to suggest that the above is especially accurate. What’s important here is the process. Talking, putting out feelers, wrestling with possibilities, asking questions of all the characters, from their point of view. Dr Fantasy is a master of the raw materials, and I’d like to think that in my small way, Mr Plausibility is something of a craftsman.

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This is an essay written for my Masters in Creative Writing, c. 2005. It is not particularly well researched, but seems relevant and eloquent enough to warrant posting.

Death in Venice

Death in Venice is a brief, yet complex novel which ought really to be called a novella.[1] Within its eighty-odd pages, Thomas Mann combines psychology, myth and eroticism with questions of the nature and role of the artist and the value of art. It is a metaphorical and allegorical novel which deals with themes common to German Romanticism, namely the proximity of love and death. That all this takes place within the context of a simple and linear story about an ageing writer’s homoerotic obsession with a fourteen year-old Polish boy in Venice makes it all the more remarkable.

Two of the major themes I wish to touch on in this discussion are those of Mann’s understanding of and concern with the role of the artist, and the manner in which he has made use of personal experience in his work. I will also examine the way in which this novella developed from its initial conception as a rather different story altogether.

Thomas Mann’s early work focused almost entirely on the problem of art and the role of the artist. Mann was conflicted between immense distrust of art as a “decadent evasion” and the elevation of art as “a source and medium of the interpretative critique of life.”[2] His thinking was to a great degree informed by the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, yet he was certainly not as strictly Nietzschean as many of his contemporaries. In his 1903 work, Tonio Kröger, Mann explored the impact of a devotion to art and a bohemian lifestyle on the ability to live a normal life and retain a normal range of emotions. The character of Tonio Kröger “suffers from the curse of being the ‘Literat’, the writer who stands fastidiously apart from experience precisely because he has seen through it all. His critical, knowing, sceptical stance conflicts with his craving for ordinary, unproblematic living.”[3]

In a sense Mann established a sort of artistic manifesto through the character of Tonio who concludes that his art must be “an art in which formal control does not become bloodless schematism, but is, rather, able to achieve a lyrical – almost ballad-like – intensity and simplicity; an art which combines a precise sense of mood, of place with passages of reflection and discursive discussion; an art which is both affectionate yet critical, both immediate yet detached, sustained by a creative eros that has the capacity for formal control, for argument in and through the aesthetic structure.”[4]

Though Tonio Kröger predates Death in Venice by almost ten years, many of the conclusions reached in its composition inform the structure and purpose of his later work.

In Death in Venice, Mann once again displays his focus on questions about the nature of the artist and his art. After introducing his character of Gustave von Aschenbach and providing the inspiration behind his trip to Venice, Mann seems impatient to unload as much character detail as possible. He outlines Aschenbach’s career as a writer with both overt and covert cynicism which pinpoints the ironies inherent in his gradual transition from energetic bohemian to clockwork establishment figure. This dense and often turgid biography acts as a sort of premise to a novella that in many ways constitutes a narrative critique of art and artists and the nature of beauty, to name two of its principal themes.

Thomas Mann makes this plain early on in the following passage:

The new type of hero favoured by Aschenbach, and recurring many times in his works, had early been analysed by a shrewd critic: ‘The conception of an intellectual and virginal manliness, which clenches its teeth and stands in modest defiance of the swords and spears that pierce its side.’ That was beautiful, it was spirituel, it was exact, despite the suggestion of too great passivity it held. Forbearance in the face of fate, beauty constant under torture, are not merely passive. They are a positive achievement, an explicit triumph; and the figure of Sebastian is the most beautiful symbol, if not of art as a whole, yet certainly of the art we speak of here. Within that world of Aschenbach’s creation were exhibited many phases of this theme: there was the aristocratic self-command that is eaten out within and for as long as it conceals its biologic decline from the eyes of the world… [5]

It is no accident that the first theme here mentioned should conform so closely to the tale that is to follow. Mann had long been intrigued by the concept of an older man who has given himself single-mindedly to high achievements, only to be seized, late in life, by love of an inappropriate object who will prove his downfall.”[6]

Thomas Mann had never shied away from using his characters and the situations into which he placed them as a forum for self-analysis. As far as he was concerned, “the personal was given its highest value when converted to literature.”[7] This was made nowhere more plain than in his brother, Heinrich’s, play about their sister, Carla’s suicide. Thomas Mann championed the play and ensured it got produced and he and his brother caused a scandal when they stood up and applauded vigorously on the opening night.

Mann was later to write:

“The personal element is all. Raw material is only the personal.”[8]

One of the most interesting aspects of Death in Venice is the degree to which it is based on real events. Within the context of this class, we have already to some degree addressed the question of how much of ourselves we might incorporate into our works; what elements of our personal experience might we deploy within the context of a piece of writing and how might we disguise or manipulate these. Death in Venice is an example both of great skill and great good fortune for almost the entire story derives from real events which are described in minute detail with a desire to be faithful to recollection.

In his memoir entitled, Sketch of my Life, Mann wrote that:

Nothing is invented in Death in Venice. The “pilgrim” at the North Cemetery, the dreary Pola boat, the grey-haired rake, the sinister gondolier, Tadzio and his family, the journey interrupted by a mistake about the luggage, the cholera, the upright clerk at the travel bureau, the rascally ballad singer, all that and anything else you like, they were all there. I had only to arrange them when they showed at once and in the oddest way their capacity as elements of composition. Perhaps it has to do with this: that as I worked on the story – as always it was a long-drawn-out job – I had at moments the clearest feelings of transcendence, a sovereign sense of being borne up such as I had never before experienced.[9]

Mann had indeed travelled with his wife and brother to an Adriatic resort, only to find it dull and oppressive, and had then made the decision to move on to Venice. He bought a ticket as described, saw the old fop on the boat as they were setting out and, upon arrival in Venice, he and his family were then transported to the Lido by an unlicensed Gondolier who dropped them off and fled without paying after unloading their luggage.

The Polish family were also present and are rendered as faithfully as possible. The accuracy of Mann’s descriptions were later attested in anecdotes and photographs provided by Count Wladyslaw Moes, upon whom Tadzio was based and who was tracked down by Mann’s daughter, Erica, in the 1960s. He also acknowledged that the tussle on the beach between Tadzio and Jaschiu had taken place in precisely the way described and even claimed to have been aware of a mysterious man who watched him continually during his stay.[10]

Not only did Mann base the context and characters upon what he witnessed and encountered, but the character of Aschenbach was a combination of himself and Gustave Mahler, who was a close personal friend of Mann and who was, at the time of Mann’s holiday in Venice, on his death-bed. During his stay in Venice, Mann read regular newspaper reports concerning Mahler’s declining health and this seems to have inspired him to borrow Mahler’s age and appearance for the character of Aschenbach.[11]

On the other hand, Aschenbach’s habits and profession are of an accurate autobiographical nature; his three hours of writing every morning, his midday nap, his tea-time and afternoon walks which are taken precisely where Mann took his, his devoting his evenings to writing letters, and his special interest in prepubescent boys.[12]

While very little of the context and events of the story might be invented, it certainly did not present itself to Mann as a whole already plotted. The prevailing themes of art and beauty in Death in Venice were originally earmarked for a different sort of story altogether.

What I originally wanted to deal with was not anything homoerotic at all. It was the story – seen grotesquely – of the aged Goethe and that little girl in Marienbad whom he was absolutely determined to marry, with the acquiescence of her social-climbing mother and despite the outraged horror of his own family, with the girl not wanting it at all – this story with its terribly comic, shameful, awesomely ridiculous situations, the embarrassing, touching, and grandiose story is one which I may someday write after all. What was added to the amalgam at the time was a personal, lyrical travel experience that determined me to carry things to an extreme by introducing the motif of “forbidden” love.[13]

Mann’s great achievement with Death in Venice was to find such strong, if simple, narrative strain within an otherwise non-narrative sequence of events from the basis of a desire to examine a theme.

One of the paradoxes of Mann’s style in Death in Venice lies in the fact that despite its thorough realism, which derives to a very great degree from his detailed description of personal experiences, the story allows myth and legend to have a very palpable existence. In every regard, Death in Venice is a “highly stylised composition characterised by a tense equilibrium of realism and idealisation.”[14] Rich in metaphor, myth and psychology; its very title is unequivocal in establishing the teleological nature of the story.

Nowhere is the palpability of mythical elements more strongly realised than in the figure of the stranger, through whose various manifestations Aschenbach is guided inexorably to his fate. The stranger takes the form of the traveller at the cemetery, the goatee’d captain of the ship from Pola, the Gondolier and finally the musician, all of whom share devilish qualities in their appearance or assume a devilish quality through their actions and context.[15]

The stranger at the cemetery first appears “standing in the portico, above the two apocalyptic beasts.”[16] The ship’s captain makes the simple act of purchasing a ticket take on the trappings of a magic show through his flourishes.

He made some scrawls on the paper, strewed bluish sand on it out of a box, thereafter letting the sand run off into an earthen vessel, folded the paper with bony yellow fingers, and wrote on the outside… … His copious gestures and empty phrases gave the odd impression that he feared the traveller might alter his mind.[17]

The process becomes more akin to the signing of a devil’s contract and once again, Aschenbach is being drawn towards his fate. When the Gondolier rows him across to the Lido, it is as though he is being taken across the Styx by Charon in a coffin. Finally he encounters the musician who reeks of death and who further acts to ensure that Aschenbach is not inclined to leave Venice by maintaining the deception regarding the outbreak of cholera.[18]

Metaphor and suggestion are continually present. The graveyard at the very beginning has a chapel in the Byzantine style – uncommon and therefore distinct in Bavaria – and surely acting as a metaphor for Venice, with its Byzantine cathedral in San Marco, thus creating another link between Venice and death.[19]

Aschenbach’s initial vision of faraway places, a vision of a “tropical marshland beneath a reeking sky, steaming, monstrous rank – a kind of primeval wilderness-world of islands, morasses and alluvial channels,” describes both the point of origin of the Cholera, and the unpleasant aspect which Venice assumes.[20] Indeed the cholera is merely the embodiment of a metaphysical process taking place within Aschenbach.

Nothing is coincidental about the writing in this work, just as the chair in the gondola is “coffin black,” just as the foppish man with the dyed moustache and goatee, with the wig and rouge heralds the fate awaiting Aschenbach.

In Death in Venice Mann uses contrast and counterpoint, combining modernity & myth, realism and fantasy to make an otherwise minimalist and linear plot so engaging.[21]

Metaphorically the story is that of the “tragedy of the creative artist whose destiny is to be betrayed by the values he has worshipped, to be summoned and destroyed by the vengeful deities of Eros, Dionysis and Death.” At a realistic level it is more a sombre parable about the physical and moral degradation of an ageing artist who relaxes his discipline.[22]

Death in Venice also functions as a series of philosophical reflections on the nature of beauty. The descriptions of Tadzio are variations on a sort of formulaic theme – that of him being representative of beauty’s very essence. At first Aschenbach’s obsession is portrayed as a realistic, psychological infatuation just as his fantasies are initially sublimated and artistic; likening Tadzio to works of art. As his fantasies become gradually more erotic, however, the language becomes increasingly baroque and mythological. As Aschenbach’s behaviour becomes increasingly inappropriate in his infatuated pursuit, culminating in his cosmetic attempt to look younger, so the language of his infatuation becomes more fantastical and ludicrous. By the end of the story the language has become as decadent and unrestrained as Aschenbach’s behaviour.[23]

It is made clear at the start that Aschenbach is a writer whose style shows “an almost exaggerated sense of beauty, a lofty purity, symmetry and simplicity” and whose work shows a “stamp of the classical.” Apart from allowing Mann more easily to locate the discussion of beauty and art within the context of Platonic philosophy, it has been argued that through allusions to antiquity and its different moral standards, he was attempting to soften the blow of the prevailing theme of homosexuality.[24]

Tadzio, is initially like one of the many youths for whom the Olympian gods “conceived a fondness” being likened to Ganymede, Hyacinthus, and eventually Eros and Hermes. He is paradoxically the inspiration and challenge to the artist’s creative urge and its nemesis. He combines both Apollonian and Dionysian qualities, an inspiration to work and a lure to dissipation, stupor and the final disintegration of the body and mind.[25] In a work that closely explores the spirit and mentality of the artist, Tadzio embodies everything that threatens to undermine discipline and the sacrifices that are required to produce great work.

With the exception of its rather ponderous beginning, Death in Venice is a masterful combination of fantasy and realism within a novella that at times reads like an essay or philosophical tract. It is a very deliberate work by a writer who felt that art ought to have a purpose even if it was to undermine itself by debunking myths about its necessity and usefulness.

What makes Death in Venice so remarkable is that even with all of this contrivance and artifice, it moves forward with such a meticulously sustained level of psychological realism that its mythical and metaphorical trappings seem rather ideally coincidental more so than they do artificially contrived. Mann achieves this through intensive detail derived from recent and fresh personal experiences and through exploration of the extremities of his own psychological predilections. Keeping the degree of autobiographical material in mind, it is tempting to conclude that Mann has achieved a daring and self-effacing exploration of his innermost feelings within the context of a speculative projection of one of his possible futures. On the other hand it could equally be said that Mann merely used elements of himself to give more truth to a scathing caricature of the German literary establishment. Either way, Death in Venice is an imaginative and intense piece of writing which raises important questions about the nature of beauty and the nature of the artist, and whilst it provides no clear answers, it offers very telling insights.

Bibliography

Mann, Thomas, Der Tod in Wenedig, 1912; trans, H. T. Lowe-Porter, Death in Venice, Penguin, 1928.

_____, Pariser Rechenschaft¸Berlin, 1926.

_____, A Sketch of my Life, New York, 1960.

Feuerlicht, Ignace, Thomas Mann, Twayne Publishers, New York, 1968.

Hollingdale,R. J. Thomas Mann; a Critical Study, Rupert Hart-Davis, London, 1971.

Swales, Martin, Thomas Mann: a Study, Heinemann, London, 1980.

Von Gronicka, André, “Myth plus Psychology: a Stylistic Analysis of Death in Venice,” in Henry Hatfield, ed. Thomas Mann: a Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, New Jersey, 1964, pp. 46-61.

Winston, Richard, Thomas Mann. The Making of an Artist 1875-1911, Constable, London, 1982.


[1] Thomas Mann, Der Tod in Wenedig, 1912. I have used the 1928 translation of H. T. Lowe-Porter, reprinted in Death in Venice, Penguin, 1955.

[2] Martin Swales, Thomas Mann: a Study, Heinemann, London, 1980, p. 29.

[3] Swales, Thomas Mann, pp. 29-33.

[4] Swales, Thomas Mann, p. 33.

[5] Mann, Death in Venice, pp. 11-12.

[6] Richard Winston, Thomas Mann. The Making of an Artist 1875-1911, Constable, London, p. 269.

[7] Winston, Thomas Mann, p. 276

[8] Mann, Pariser Rechenschaft¸Berlin, 1926, p. 119; André Von Gronicka, “Myth plus Psychology: a Stylistic Analysis of Death in Venice,” in Henry Hatfield, ed. Thomas Mann: a Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, New Jersey, 1964, pp. 46-61; p. 49.

[9] Thomas Mann, Sketch of my Life, New York, 1960.

[10] Winston, Thomas Mann, pp. 267-70.

[11] Winston, Thomas Mann, pp. 267-8.

[12] Winston, Thomas Mann, pp. 268-9.

[13] Mann, Sketch of my Life; Winston, Thomas Mann, pp. 269-70.

[14] Von Gronicka, “Myth plus Psychology,” pp. 50-3.

[15] Swales, Thomas Mann, pp. 38-39.

[16] Mann, Death in Venice, p. 4.

[17] Mann, Death in Venice, p. 17.

[18] Von Gronicka, “Myth plus Psychology,” pp. 53-5; Ignace Feuerlicht, Thomas Mann, Twayne Publishers, New York, 1968, pp. 121-4.

[19] Mann, Death in Venice, p. 4.

[20] Mann, Death in Venice, pp. 5-6.

[21] Von Gronicka, “Myth plus Psychology,” p. 51.

[22] Swales, Thomas Mann, p. 41.

[23] Von Gronicka, “Myth plus Psychology,” pp. 51-3.

[24] Feuerlicht, Thomas Mann, pp. 118-24.

[25] Von Gronicka, “Myth plus Psychology,” p. 55.

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Writers on Writing

The following is an essay written in 2008 during my Masters in Creative Writing at The University of Technology, Sydney. It marks the opening of a new category, On Writing, which I hope expand in future.

Writers on Writing

Is what writers write about writing merely a reflection of their own approaches and sensibilities? To what degree is a particular style or sensibility dependent upon an author’s circumstance? Can other writers still benefit from what they have to say?

If one conducts a search on the web with the keywords, “writers on writing”, it is immediately apparent that there is a vast and diverse range of information available, ranging from simple practical, methodological advice to more elaborately theoretical, philosophical, and even ideological approaches to composition. Currently top of the list is a database from the New York Times with articles by such figures as Annie Proulx, Saul Bellow, E. L. Doctorow, David Mamet, Barbara Kingsolver, and John Updike, to name a few. Most of the articles are of an anecdotal nature, within which context the authors indicate their preferences, elements of their routines, the ways in which they seek inspiration. Some are more meditative and intellectualising, whilst others are directly prescriptive.

One such article, Elmore Leonard’s famous Ten Rules of Writing, now available in a bloated, illustrated edition, has in itself generated a lot of discussion, most immediately evident on internet forums and bulletin boards.[1] His simple advice on things such as the attribution of lines of dialogue, use of exclamation marks and adverbs, the avoidance of prologues and not commencing a novel with a description of the weather, is generally accepted as sound. Yet, it has the force of a stern caveat capable of leaving less confident writers sufficiently shaken to begin jettisoning their own nascent style and attempting to emulate his. Whether or not this is a positive thing remains to be seen. As many contributors to the internet discussions surrounding Leonard’s ten rules have said, any such rules are by no means hard and fast. One might even go on to say that rules are made to be broken, though it has also been said that it is best to learn them first. Perhaps the real question is, whose rules? Whose advice?

The available online resources pale in comparison to what might be found on the shelves of any good academic library. Here the subject is covered much more comprehensively, through the various vehicles of criticism, theory, and the simple “How-to” texts containing suggested techniques both for writing and how best to negotiate the industry. Historically writers have written both on theory and practice – take for instance Henry James, E. M. Forster and Vladimir Nabokov – though increasingly theory has become the realm not of writers, but of “experts”: critics and academics.[2] Whilst no clear demarcation exists between theoretical and practical approaches, any broad survey of the literature suggests that the bulk of writers on writing tend to focus more upon process and technique than theory and criticism, perhaps through a sort of natural selection.[3]

This is by no means always the case, and it is the purpose of this essay to consider two texts, both by notable authors, Italo Calvino’s chapter on “Lightness” from his posthumously published volume of lectures entitled Six Memos for the Next Millenium, and Milan Kundera’s “Dialogue on the Art of the Novel,” from his 1988 book The Art of the Novel.[4] What makes these two texts most interesting is that they come from authors who might also be described as intellectual heavyweights. In these texts they attempt to explain the theoretical, practical and philosophical principles that underlie their method and technique, and the means by which one determines what is necessary in selecting the tone and the process by which characters reveal themselves.

There is also a convenient link between the two pieces, the idea of “lightness”. Early on in his chapter entitled “Lightness,” Calvino makes mention of Milan Kundera’s novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the first section of which is titled “Lightness and Weight.” He writes:

It is hard for a novelist to give examples of his idea of lightness from everyday life, without making them the unattainable object of an endless quête. This is what Milan Kundera has done with great clarity and immediacy. His novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, is in reality a bitter confirmation of the Ineluctable Weight of Living… For Kundera the weight of living consists chiefly in constriction, in the dense net of public and private constrictions that enfolds us more and more closely. His novel shows us how everything we choose and value in life for its lightness soon reveals its true, unbearable weight.”[5]

In his opening sentence, Calvino makes plain his desire to examine the opposition between light and weight, and to “uphold the values of lightness.”[6] In seeking to arrive at an overall definition of his method, he suggests that it “has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight… sometimes from people , sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language.”[7] Kundera too confirms this as one of his underlying principles when, in his “Dialogue on the Art of Composition,” he speaks of the “will to divest”, a process of ridding the novel of “technique”; such as the clutter of unnecessary transitions.[8]

Calvino takes a while to express his definition of lightness, which initially seems diaphanous, as airy and ungraspable as one might expect lightness to be. This is largely because he fails to outline exactly what he means when he speaks of “weight”. Unless we are to assume that he is in complete agreement with his aforementioned summary of Kundera’s definition of the weight of living as a form of constriction, we are left to determine what he means more through the shape of absence, like those ancient Chinese dictionaries that defined things by what they are not, or the people-shaped holes left in the Pompeian ash. In attempting to determine the opposite of what he defines as lightness, one can infer that by “weight” he means the whole gamut of human burdens; misfortune, worry, heartbreak, oppression, catastrophe, and even demons.

So how does Calvino define lightness? He commences with the myth of Perseus and Medusa. Medusa, whose gaze turned people to stone, is hunted by Perseus, who arrives at her lair supported on the winds and clouds. Perseus, aware of the risk of meeting her gaze, cleverly watches her reflection in his bronze shield as he approaches to strike. Calvino states that he is “immediately tempted to see this myth as an allegory on the poet’s relationship to the world, a lesson in the method to follow when writing.”[9] He clarifies this by stating later that “Perseus’ strength always lies in a refusal to look directly, but not in a refusal of the reality in which he is fated to live; he carries the reality with him and accepts it as his particular burden.”[10] Perseus treats his burden lightly.

So what does this mean for the writer? If this is a lesson in method, then what is its practical application? How does one take this metaphor of viewing the world indirectly and employ it? Perhaps more importantly, why is he recommending viewing the world in this manner? Calvino himself seems to be grasping for a clearer definition and turns to the modern Italian poet Eugenio Montale, with particular reference to his Piccolo Testamente. According to Calvino, rather than foregrounding catastrophe in his poetry when dealing with weighty subjects, Montale instead professes “faith in the persistence of what is most fated to perish, in the moral values invested in the most tenuous traces.”[11] He writes of the delicate things that are threatened by the weight of events, by approaching catastrophe or apocalypse, rather than the catastrophe or apocalypse itself. The writing thus attains a lightness, a fragility, making its point more effectively without the bludgeon of weightiness one might associate with darker imagery.

Calvino locates the roots of his idea of lightness in an ancient philosophical and scientific view of the world. For the Roman poets, Lucretius and Ovid, lightness was central to their way of looking at the world, derived from the philosophy of Epicurus and Pythagoras.[12] Both of these philosophers accepted the theory of Atomism, first espoused by the pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus (c.460 BC), that all things were composed of thousands of individual atoms whose nature remained unchanged, but whose combinations could produce infinite complexity, (with numerous variations on the same theme). Calvino argues that this facilitated a perception of mutability, of metamorphosis, of the lightness of the component parts of all things.[13]

Many other examples of lightness in the authors cited by Calvino seem to have their roots in a philosophical or scientific understanding of the world. The fourteenth-century Tuscan poet Cavalcanti claimed that he was an Epicurean, though his beliefs are more akin to Averroism, whilst Dante “gives solidity even to the most abstract intellectual speculation.” Boccaccio was a noted Italian humanist who studied classical literature and philosophy and championed obscure forms of ancient poetry. In the dream of Queen Mab in a speech by Mercutio in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, her coach is drawn by “little atomies”; a dream, Calvino notes, which combines Lucretian atomism, Renaissance neoplatonism and Celtic folklore.[14] Calvino also notes Cyrano de Bergerac’s fascination with getting to the moon. Calvino further links atomism with the signs or letters used in writing. Just as words are constructed of particles, so is the world they describe.[15]

One is left wondering whether or not lightness can only be achieved through philosophy or a basic understanding of Atomism and its later theoretical elaborations such as Newtonian physics. Is the capacity for lightness dependent upon a certain intellectual tradition or sensibility? As if to counter this, Calvino writes that “lightness is also something arising from the writing itself, from the poet’s own linguistic power, quite independent of whatever philosophic doctrine the poet claims to be following.”[16]

If the lightness does come from the “writing itself, from the poet’s own linguistic power,” one must also raise the question as to whether this power exists verbally or semantically? In words or meaning? To what degree, for instance, does lightness depend upon the words themselves? Can it survive translation? Is such lightness contained within the lyricism of the language itself, assisted by alliteration and other devices and contrivances, or does what is being signified have a universality, not governed by the signifier? Is this lightness equally accessible in English as it is in Latin or, in the case of Cavalcanti, the Tuscan vernacular?

It seems most likely that Calvino identifies lightness within that which is being signified rather than the words themselves. Perhaps the realm of lightness, wind, clouds, sky, wings, feathers, birds, leaves, flowers, scent, and other such airy things, invoked in any language, is universal, irrespective of the actual words employed. Seeking to achieve lightness, ought not, however, result in frivolity, which Calvino cautions against. He recommends a “lightness of thoughtfulness,” which can “make frivolity seem dull and heavy.”[17] He ssociates lightness with “precision and determination,” as opposed to “vagueness and the haphazard.” He quotes Paul Valery who wrote that “One should be light like a bird and not like a feather.”[18] In other words, light and strong, light and skillful, not merely weightless. We appreciate the lightness of the language, because we know that it has weight to it.[19]

We must bear in mind that original purpose of the lecture series that forms Calvino’s Six Memos was speculate on what might be the direction of literature in the next millennium, now upon us. It would be naïve to assume that what Calvino wrote was designed to be merely prescriptive, but it is worth taking note of his more prescriptive musings.

Describing a scene in the Decameron in which Boccaccio represents the poet Cavalcanti fleeing, with a sprightly leap, the taunts of a group of youths, Calvino writes:

“Were I to choose an auspicious image for the new millennium, I would choose that one: the sudden leap of the poet philosopher who raises himself above the weight of the world, showing that with all his gravity he has the secret of lightness, and that what many consider to be the vitality of the times – noisy, aggressive, revving and roaring – belongs to the realm of death, like a cemetery for rusty old cars.”[20]

It is a fine image, but it seems to highlight more than ever the degree to which Calvino’s idea of lightness is really just an expression of a particular sensibility. It is a tone and mood that reflects aspects of his own style, and perhaps that of Milan Kundera’s style as well, which, when employed to best effect, is extremely engaging. Yet it is by no means the only method of approaching weighty subjects, as the work of Emile Zola or Alexander Solzhenitsyn will testify.

In his review of Calvino’s Six Memos, Robert Coover wrote:

“It’s an old truth that writers, theorizing on the state of their form, tend to talk mainly about or to themselves.”[21]

This certainly seems to be the case with Calvino, though this by no means invalidates or makes redundant the ideas and themes he expresses. Consider his rhetorical question, “is it legitimate to turn to scientific discourse to find an image of the world that suits my view?” His is a theory to which the evidence has been selected and fitted, and a writer might equally ask if it is legitimate turning to Calvino’s view in the hope of finding an image that best suits them.

Bearing in mind the idea of “sensibility”, we can return to the question of whether a writer’s observations about writing can have a universal application, or whether or not they merely constitute an expression of their own idiosyncratic view of the world and their work.

As was noted above, Italo Calvino celebrated Milan Kundera’s ability to achieve lightness as a means of expressing the weight of living. He attributes it to the “liveliness and mobility” of Kundera’s intelligence, qualities, he suggests, “which belong to a world quite different from the one we live in.”[22] Where then, do these qualities come from? Is Calvino suggesting they are a consequence of Kundera’s Czechoslovakian experience, or that they have their origins in the realm of lightness he describes?

Paul Theroux, reviewing Kundera’s novel, Life is Elsewhere, wrote:

“Kundera’s humor is impossible elsewhere. One can’t imagine his particular situations growing out of anything but a combined anger and fascination with the cut-price Stalinists who have the whip- hand in Prague.”[23]

David Lodge argues that the magical realist elements in Kundera’s work, which might be said to constitute his lightest touches, are the result of “having lived through great historical convulsions and wrenching personal upheavals”, which “cannot be adequately represented in a discourse of undisturbed realism.”[24]

Is Kundera’s lightness something unique, something only possible after enduring a particular level of constrictive oppression? Is his irony and satire something pressed into being by constriction, like a diamond from coal? Can one create this balance of light and weight outside such a context, wherein one has seen both the idiocy, the “kitsch”, the vanity and brutality of oppression, an oppression beyond the weightiness of everyday concerns?

Kundera himself sees it differently, so far as he is willing to admit. In his “Dialogue on the Art of the Novel,” he does not single himself out as someone who occupies unique circumstances, who thus has access to a unique sense of “lightness”, rather he locates his aesthetic in an attempt to render the existential problems of the self.[25] In this light it is perhaps inevitable that Kundera should not attribute his aesthetic to his circumstances, for he argues that history itself ought to be understood primarily as an existential situation.[26] Kundera’s great literary heroes, Witold Gombrowicz and Franz Kafka, did not share his circumstances, and what he claims to admire in them primarily is their attempts to come to grips with existential problems.

So far as Kundera is concerned, historical circumstances are purely incidental and are worth foregrounding when they are relevant to the existential concerns of the characters.[27] With Kafka’s The Trial, for instance, the Joseph K. has no physical or psychological history, we know nothing of his past or his predilections, and the only time we have access to his thoughts is when Kafka reveals his means of grappling with the present. Joseph K.’s dilemma is a essentially an existential one.

Perhaps this existential focus is the key to Kundera’s “lightness”. By focussing on the characters’ existential dilemmas, he avoids the weight of their history and psychology. Perhaps, as readers, we experience the lightness owing to our being more at home with the personal than the political. We can grasp the ironies and complexities of human problems with much greater immediacy than we can those of historical or political circumstances, though, as Kundera himself points out, often history itself is an existential problem and is duly brought to the foreground.

Essentially, Kundera tells us, he is not as interested in history as he is in existence. He sees the principal function of the novel as being to examine the nature of existence, as opposed to reality.

“…existence is not what has occurred, existence is the realm of human possibilities, everything that man can become, everything he’s capable of. Novelists draw up the map of existence by discovering this or that human possibility. But again, to exist means: being in the world. Thus both the character and his world must be understood as possibilities. In Kafka, all that is clear: the Kafkan world does not resemble any known reality, it is an extreme and unrealised possibility of the human world.”[28]

This statement is fundamental to Kundera’s approach to his work. With its authorial intrusions and structural contrivances, one might say the same of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, as Kundera does of Kafka’s work, that it is about human possibility. Whilst Kafka’s work might constitute a significant twist of the kaleidoscope, in the case of Kundera the twist is much more slight. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, we are continually reminded that it is in effect a work of fiction, yet the characters stand out as starkly real because of the skill with which Kundera presents their existential situations. They are a clever and precise musing on the possible, both personal and historical.

The ultimate purpose of Kundera’s existential focus lies in an attempt to define the self. It is here that he locates his aesthetic. In his “Dialogue on the Art of the Novel,” Kundera’s first and recurrent assertion is that “all novels, of every age, deal with the enigma of the self. As soon as you create an imaginary being, a character, you are automatically confronted by the question: What is the self? How can the self be grasped?”[29]

More often than not attempts to come to grips with the nature of the self have been rooted in the psychological; stream of consciousness, interior monologue and so on. Kundera, however, takes pain to locate his work outside the realm of the psychological novel, whilst asserting that he does not wish to deprive his characters of an inner life. Rather than displaying the thoughts and internal processes of his characters, he instead uses frequent authorial intrusions into the text. As he explains in the case of Jaromil from Life is Elsewhere, it is the workings of his own mind that he displays to the reader, as opposed to the mind of Jaromil.[30]

In order to reveal the inner life of his characters, Kundera outlines an existential code for each; a sort of DNA comprised of a number of keywords.[31] As each character has a different code, so what is required for them to reveal themselves will differ. In some instances it might be necessary to explain aspects of their background or appearance, while in other cases characters merely reveal themselves through action, which, being a response to their existential problems, reveals their inner life. Thus, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the upbringing of Teresa, whose fundamental existential problem is being an extension of her mother, is described in detail, whilst we learn next to nothing of Tomas’ past. It is a uniform logic of selective uniformity; a formula requiring the application of different formulas. On the whole, however, Kundera prefers to have his characters reveal themselves through action, even if, or perhaps especially if, the consequences are paradoxical. He quotes Dante’s statement that “In any act, the primary intention of him who acts is to reveal his own image.”[32] Action thus becomes a self-portrait of the actor, often resulting in paradox where the intentions of a character’s actions fail to be realised in the outcomes, or result in entirely unexpected outcomes.[33] The existential problem of the individual remains, for Kundera, of much greater interest than the question of their psychological motives.

There are identifiable similarities between Kundera’s focus on the existential and Calvino’s idea, expressed through the example of Montale, of only foregrounding the fragile things, the things which are threatened.[34] Rather than lengthy descriptions of the history and nature of oppression in Czechoslovakia, Kundera only mentions the context when it directly and with immediacy impacts upon the existential dilemma of his characters. It is a means of achieving lightness through economy, or perhaps a means of achieving economy through lightness. Either way, his novels are ultimately more readable as a consequence of this lightness and economy.

We might return at this point to a reiteration of the definition of lightness as an absence of weight. Both Calvino and Kundera indicate their tendency towards reduction, towards stripping back, or simple omission of what might be conventional but unnecessary. While achieving their goal through slightly different methods, they both indicate a preference for avoiding the expression of misfortune through the heaviness of history, vocabulary, internal dialogues of despair. It seems that they are counselling against employing the weight of circumstances as a bludgeon, that rather one achieves a more poignant result with a lighter touch. Is this because our sentiments are better engaged through beauty, or through delicacy, as opposed to the more openly manipulative register of sorrows? Perhaps we might draw one last comparison and liken it to Ghandi’s advocating non-violent protest, which was, arguably, more admirable and effective than the violent upheavals that so commonly characterise resistance to oppression.

To conclude we must begin by acknowledging the difficulty of determining, in any quantitative or qualitative manner, whether a particular style or sensibility derives from a particular set of circumstances. In the case of Milan Kundera, it could certainly said that some of the paradoxes of his novels might not exist without his experience of life in Czechoslovakia, though his settings do, quite often, bear an uncanny resemblance to what authors such as Kafka imagined – existence under a brutally logical bureaucracy. Whilst there might be logical and cognitive connections between the style and circumstance, to suggest that lightness as a response to heaviness is a facility only properly available to those who have experienced true heaviness would be to deny the flexibility of imagination. Perhaps it is true that Italo Calvino and Milan Kundera derive their capacity for lightness from their experience of heaviness, but that need not make such conditions an exclusive pre-requisite. Heaviness, whilst perhaps better or more quickly understood if experienced directly, can also be imagined.

So far as the corpus of work by writers on writing goes, these are not overly prescriptive texts, though they do at times hold strong opinions. Even were it the case that these authors were expressing a unique sensibility, this would not, by any means, make these texts redundant. What they offer is an alternative point of view, and a number of powerful triggers for consideration of what, why and how to treat certain subjects. As is the case with more directly prescriptive texts, one must be cautious, particularly in the case of new writers, to avoid feeling oppressed by the weight of the opinions put forth. No espousal of style or method, despite the authority of the source, is the final word on the matter.

Bibliography

Calvino, Italo, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, trans. Patrick Creagh, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1988

Coover, Robert, “The Promised Land of Literature”, The New York Times, March 20, 1988.

Forster, E. M. Aspects of the Novel, Edward Arnold, London, 1949.

Hawthorn, Jeremy, Studying the Novel, 3rd ed. Hodder Arnold, London, 1997

Hodgkins, Jack, A Passion for Narrative: a guide for Writing Fiction, McLelland and Stewart, Toronto, 1993.

James, Henry, The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces, ed. Richard Blackmur, C. Scribners, New York, 1962.

_____, Notes on Novelists, J. M. Dent, London, 1914.

Kundera, Milan, The Art of the Novel, trans. Linda Asher, Faber and Faber, London, 2005.

_____, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, trans. Michael Henry Heim, Faber and Faber, London, 1984.

Leonard, Elmore, “Ten Rules of Writing,” The New York Times, July 16, 2001.

_____, Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing, Harper Collins, New York, 2007.

Lodge, David, The Art of Fiction, Penguin, London, 1992.

Nabokov, Vladimir, Lectures on Literature, Harvest Book, New York, 1982.

Pack, Robert & Parini, Jay (eds), Writers on Writing, Hanover, University Press of New England, 1991.

Theroux, Paul, “Small Novel, Large Stories,” The New York Times, July 28, 1974.


[1] Elmore Leonard, “Ten Rules of Writing,” The New York Times, July 16, 2001; Leonard, Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing, Harper Collins, New York, 2007.

[2] E. M. Forster. Aspects of the Novel, Edward Arnold, London, 1949; Henry James, The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces, ed. Richard Blackmur, C. Scribners, New York, 1962; James, Notes on Novelists, Notes on Novelists, J. M. Dent, London, 1914. Robert Pack & Jay Parini (eds), Writers on Writing, Hanover, University Press of New England, 1991, p. vii.

[3] “The language of criticism has become so technical, even jargon-ridden, that writers of poetry and fiction often can’t or, more usually, won’t stoop to conquer.” Pack & Parini, Writers on Writing, p. vii.

[4] Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, trans. Patrick Creagh, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1988. Before dying suddenly of a stroke in 1985, Calvino had completed five of the six lectures that comprise his Six Memos. These bear the titles of “Lightness,” “Quickness,” “Exactitude,” “Visibility” and “Multiplicity.” Ironically, the final lecture was to be on “Consistency.” Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel, trans. Linda Asher, Faber and Faber, London, 2005.

[5] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 7.

[6] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 3.

[7] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 3. Perhaps an even more succinct way of putting it can be found in the famous quote of Antoine de Saint-Exupery: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

[8] Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel, pp. 72-3.

[9] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 4.

[10] Calvino, Six Memos, pp. 4, 5

[11] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 6.

[12] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 10.

[13] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 8.

[14] Calvino, Six Memos, pp 16-18.

[15] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 26.

[16] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 10.

[17] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 10.

[18] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 16.

[19] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 15.

[20] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 12.

[21] Robert Coover, “The Promised Land of Literature”, The New York Times, March 20, 1988.

[22] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 7.

[23] Paul Theroux, “Small Novel, Large Stories,” The New York Times, July 28, 1974.

[24] David Lodge, The Art of Fiction, Penguin, London, 1992, p. 114.

[25] See below, pp. 7-8. Kundera, Art of the Novel, p. 23.

[26] Kundera, Art of the Novel, p. 38.

[27] “The novelist is neither historian nor prophet: he is an explorer of existence.” Kundera, Art of the Novel, p. 44.

[28] Kundera, Art of the Novel, pp. 42-3.

[29] Kundera, Art of the Novel, p. 23.

[30] Kundera, Art of the Novel, p. 30.

[31] Kundera, Art of the Novel, p. 29.

[32] Kundera, Art of the Novel, p. 23.

[33] Kundera, Art of the Novel, p. 24.

[34] See above, p. 3.

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“Do you want some books? Some English books?”

It was Sunil speaking, my auto-rickshaw driver for the last two days in Jaipur.

Jaipur - The Boss

“I have two books. You can take them with you.”

“What books?”

“Two English books. A girl gave them to me to read. She said they are very good books. She gave them to me to read them when I learn to read properly.”

“Oh, nice. What books are they?”

“I’ll get them.” He stood up in his chair and I rose halfway myself.

“No, it’s cool, man,” I said. “Don’t worry. It’s too much trouble.”

“No, it’s no trouble. I live across the road. I’ll get them.”

“Really, only if it’s no trouble.”

He laughed and smiled again. “It’s just across the road.”

“Okay, sure. If you want to, thanks.”

Sunil left in a flash and I eased back into my chair. I was sitting on the open rooftop of the hotel; drinking black tea and picking away at a paratha. For the last twenty-four hours I’d had stomach problems aplenty and had only just gotten through the day’s activities: a visit to the Jantar Mantar and Amber Fort; a test of endurance in forty degree heat.

Amber Fort, Jaipur
At the far end of the rooftop, before a painted arch, a two-man troupe were putting on a puppet show; stories of the Ramayana. At times the volume was too much, the cymbals too clanging. I was too fragile for much patience, but also a tad too weak to feel any annoyance. I was still acclimatising to India, to Rajasthan, and I guess getting sick was part of the trip.
Sunil and I had just cut a deal. His uncle, Shyam, was to drive me around Rajasthan for the next ten days, starting the following morning. The price was fair and it seemed a far more convenient arrangement than taking my chances with the local buses and trains. It would also ensure I could see the more remote forts and temples, provided I was well enough.
I began to wonder about the books Sunil was bringing. What would they be? Rudyard Kipling, for heaven’s sake? I wasn’t terribly optimistic, though I wasn’t too pessimistic either. The worst case scenario would be a couple of airport potboilers, or some junk about spiritual enlightenment, though I most expected him to hand me some inoffensive, lightweight fiction.

Jaipur Hotel
Sunil returned after five minutes, wielding two books. One was a hardback, the other, a floppy paperback.

“Here they are!” he said.

He was slightly out of breath. A short, moustachioed, rotund and cheerful man in his mid-thirties, Sunil always had an air of abundant enthusiasm.
He placed the books on the table and as soon as I saw the titles, I was pleased and surprised.
Summertime by J.M. Coetzee and The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.
I had read neither of them, but had wanted to do so, and now I was free to take them with me around Rajasthan.

“Oh, cool,” I said. “Excellent.” I picked up Summertime.

Summertime - Coetzee

“This guy, Coetzee, is a very famous author. Have you heard of him?”

“No.”

“He won the Booker prize, twice. It’s like the biggest prize in writing and only two or three people have won it twice. I’ve read about six of his books. Hell, I even taught his stuff once!”

“But that’s great,” said Sunil. “See, I knew these books would be good. The girl was very nice, very clever.”

“And have you heard of Arundhati Roy?”

He shook his head.

“She’s Indian, though I don’t know where from. This book also won the Booker prize. It’s supposed to be very, very good.”

“Very good then! And now, you can read them and tell me what you think. One day, I will read them too.”

We turned back to planning my route through Rajasthan over a large map of the region. I was very excited, though uneasy with stomach cramps. As we sat there over the next half hour, I kept glancing at the books and wondering whether or not these would really be the best place to start reading English literature. Coetzee might be just the thing, with his terse, laconic use of language and simple sentences, but I had no idea what to expect from Arundhati Roy. Still, as an Indian writing about India, the book could well be a lot more interesting and accessible for Sunil. There was only one way to find out: Read them.
The following morning I set off for Pushkar with Sunil’s uncle, Shyam. I had decided, on account of recurrent stomach problems, to hole up there for a couple of days in the hope of getting over my illness. The drive was easy, if disappointingly desolate, until the final stretch that is, when we turned off the main road. The land became more fertile, with many trees and patches of green growth; it was a yellow land, the colour of wheat heads, baking in the sun at the end of the long, hot dry, yet nourished by wells and tanks from the last monsoon.

Shyam!
We arrived at just after one in the afternoon, and made straight for the hotel. It took some time to rouse reception, but once on hand, it wasn’t long before I had the keys. I had booked a somewhat luxurious room – white marble, high ceiling, fan, air-con, a king-sized bed – all subtly decorated with painted flowers and curlicues. The small balcony overlooked the swimming pool and surrounding countryside; framed by tall hills of scrub and martian rock, the low-land was bright with crops of flowers grown for Puja. It was stupidly cheap at twenty dollars a night.

Pushkar street
After a swim and a meal of dry garlic naan and black tea, I set off into town to explore. My fragile stomach rebelled at the powerful scents of dung and refuse, and, feeling physically exhausted, I was not in the mood for solicitations. I lasted only two hours before heading back to the hotel; tired, with a headache, wanting to have eaten, but having no appetite whatsoever. It was simply too hot, at thirty-six degrees and there was nothing for it but to read. I picked up The God of Small Things and lay down by the bright window. I was soon completely hooked.

God of small things
The following day, my guts had not improved and I again only managed a short visit to town. It was disappointing, but I made the most of the time and took some good photographs. I was quite content to stay in the hotel anyway, with my imperial view across the fields of flowers to the hills, the swimming pool and abundant natural light. I spent a couple of hours watching women in traditional clothes harvesting flowers in the fields, before returning to my room to read.
Late that afternoon, as the sun fell quickly behind the turrets, painting the sky a brief pink and purple, I finished the book. I felt immediately bereft, having gained and lost so much so quickly.

Pushkar

Pushkar
I was exhausted and weak. I’d eaten some bananas and half a pineapple that day, along with more dry bread and black tea, but it was nowhere near enough food and I had to force myself to eat it. I decided I needed antibiotics, but had left it rather late to get something.
Tired, yet restless, I forced myself to start reading Summertime, if only not to feel so hollow. It took me a while to get started, but slowly and surely, it drew me in and gave me sufficient solace to get through the evening.
The following morning, Shyam and I left early to head down through Chittorgarh, en route for Udaipur, where I finally got hold of some antibiotics. I left Summertime in the car by accident, but was not in any great hurry to finish it.

Ranakpur

Jodphur

Jaisalmer

Shekhawati Shyam

There was now the Indian Premier League Cricket to watch, and, with my recovery starting the moment I took the first pill, I wanted to spend the time seeing things and taking photographs.

It was thus more than a week later, at the end of the Rajasthani tour, driving from Jaisalmer to Bikaner, that I finished reading the book. It had had its moments, though I was left feeling a tad nonplussed. The organisation of the book seemed too arbitrary, too random, though the writing throughout was quality.

When Sunil and I finally sat down together again in Jaipur, eleven days after our last encounter, I brought the two books with me. Sunil produced a small bottle of rum and poured us both a glass.

Team Jaipur!

“Do you know what rum means?” he asked.

“No, I don’t. Does it mean something?”

“Yes,” said Sunil. “The letters. R.U.M – Regular Use Medicine.”

We laughed together and I took a slug of Sunil’s medicine. Soon the waiter came by and I ordered a vegetarian thali and a bottle of beer.

“Look, about these books. I’m not sure that either of them is a good place to start reading.”

“Why not?”

“Basically, I think you’ll find Summertime rather boring and too academic. It has some very simple and easily understood parts to it, but it also discusses literature, theory – university stuff. It’s not really going to be that easy, I think, if you don’t know half the words. And, you know, that’s kind of the problem with The God of Small Things. I loved this book, it’s a great read – yet the language is very idiosyncratic. I mean, she uses a lot of words in strange ways, in different ways, and here and there she adds new words. It also moves back and forth in time, and has some complicated scenes where it was at first difficult to work out who was who. I had to read the first chapter twice to work out who the people were. I think it’s going to be a hard place to start reading English novels!”

I was concerned that he might think I thought him stupid, whereas I knew from our conversations that he had a very agile mind. But I also knew how limited his writing and reading skills were, because he had asked me to compose and type text messages for him to his English-speaking French girlfriend, so uncomfortable was he with spelling and grammar. What he needed was a great novel with simple language and limited nuance, though not devoid of it.

“But you liked the books? They are good?”

“Yes, I liked the books a lot. This one in particular,” I pointed to The God of Small Things. “But maybe you’d be better off starting with something else. Something with easier language in it.”

I began to wonder if he wouldn’t just prefer to read a crime thriller or action story of some kind. In truth, I hardly knew the guy, and apart from his professed interest in women of all shapes and sizes, I didn’t have a handle on his tastes. Then, I had an idea.

“Hang on. I think I have a suggestion. I’ll write it down for you.” I felt in the front pocket of my bag. “Oh crap.”

“What?”

“I don’t have a pen.”

He turned and called out in Hindi. The waiter came over with a pen.

“Write on the napkin,” said the waiter.

“No, no,” said Sunil. “I want to keep it. A napkin is not good paper.”

“Hang on,” I said, taking the pen. I pulled a folded sheet with an old hotel booking from my bag, pressed the folds and tore off a quarter. The waiter moved away.

“The book is called The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway. It’s a great classic and you’ll be able to find it in India, no problem.”

The Old Man and the Sea - Ernest Hemingway

Not long afterwards we parted ways for the last time and I returned to my hotel room. I smoked a little hashish, watched the cricket and went to bed. Before sleeping, I thought more about my recommendation. The choice seemed sound enough, and I felt rather too smugly pleased with myself for having suggested it. I suppose, having read a lot of novels and studied literature at university for years, along with teaching English, I ought to be able to make a good recommendation for a first English novel, or at least reserve the right not to feel like a total fraud in doing so. Still, what troubled me was that I had only read The Old Man and the Sea once, more than twenty years ago, when still in high school. Did I really know what I was talking about?

Four days later, sitting in the German bakery overlooking the wire suspension bridge, Lakshman Jhula, in Rishikesh, I noticed that there was a bookstore next door. I had walked straight past it and missed it altogether, yet they had a side window that opened into the café; a window, I had, strangely mistaken for either a mirror or a poster. Precisely what it was supposed to be reflecting or advertising, I can’t say.
I finished my meal of fruit salad, banana pancake with honey and two bowel-shifting filter coffees, and walked inside. By coincidence, the first shelf I looked at contained a collection of Hemingway novels and short stories. Sure enough, there it was: The Old Man and the Sea. I pulled it out and flipped it over: one hundred and ten rupees, or two dollars fifty. I could hardly just leave it, especially as, with a mere hundred pages, it would be no burden to cart around with me.
That day I took it back to my room at the Jaipur Inn; an expensive place at almost thirty dollars a night, but all I had been able to find at this time of year. It wasn’t quite full season yet, but the Kumbh Mela, a once-every-four-year Hindu festival of epic proportions, indeed, the largest gathering of people on Earth, was on down in Haridwar, a mere ten miles from Rishikesh. I was lucky to have a room at all, for the town was jam-packed full of pilgrims, sadhus, nomads, middle and upper class Indians, and tourists who had come either to find or lose themselves.

Rishikesh

Rishikesh

Rishikesh

Rishikesh

I needed a break from the throng, and, after negotiating the ever-crowded Lakshman Jhula, I showered, lay down on my bed and began to read the book.

Oh dear, was my first thought, as the characters began to speak. I have never been entirely comfortable with Hemingway’s dialogue; at times it has a crisp and simple reality to it; his characters speak in no-nonsense, no-frills, laconic utterances; brutally factual, often quietly defensive, formidably stoic. At other times, the tone is lighter; a slight playfulness creeps in, if somewhat reluctant, hard-boiled, guarded. Yet all too often, Hemingway’s characters speak with an odd and awkward formality. One understands that, particularly in his Spanish-speaking characters, he is attempting to replicate the more formal qualities of the grammar and niceties of the language. Yet it feels inauthentic, staid and archaic. In an attempt to create something naturalistic, there is too much evident process. His characters sound more like people reading lines, uncomfortably; like people bent on finishing their sentences with peculiar completeness.
This was my response to The Old Man and the Sea. I pushed on through the first twenty pages, wondering how on earth I could have recommended this novel. It wasn’t that it was bad, in fact, I was very much enjoying the setting, the observational detail, the tone and mood. But it struck me as a very odd book to choose as one’s first novel to read in English. It was full of jargon peculiar to fishing; hooks, lines, hawsers, thwarts. Would my Rajasthani friend bother reaching for his dictionary to understand the anatomy of a boat, of the fisherman’s trade? I very much doubted it. Would the story interest him; this slow-starting yarn of physical and psychological endurance? This melancholy tale of struggle, victory, loss and quiet respect? I very much doubted it.

I finished the book in an hour and a half, then got up to go back outside. I was very much inside the story, and it was very much inside me. I relished the intensity of mood it had brought on; it truly was a great story, and very well told, but I couldn’t help feeling I had given my friend a bum steer.
After a couple of minutes, my embarrassment passed. I began to laugh to myself. Hadn’t Sunil, after all, given me a bum steer as well? Hadn’t he told me that the Kumbh Mela would in no way effect Rishikesh, for all the pilgrims and tourists stayed in Haridwar? Hadn’t he told me I’d have no trouble getting up to Gangotri, only to find on arrival in Rishikesh that the road was closed until opened by the army on May 15? Hadn’t he sent me to the wrong bus-station in Delhi? I smiled at the thought of him settling in with The Old Man and the Sea. Perhaps he would find a way in, just as I had made my way here and found a hotel room despite tribulations. Yet, somehow, I didn’t think English novels were for him.

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