Friday, 29 August 2014

Back to Admiration

Geoff Dyer is my man.  For now at least. 

Every once in a while, a writer comes along that pulls me into his, or her, orbit.  The tug is irresistible.  The one-sided relationship is either serendipitous or in this case, a casual introduction.   As before, the friend responsible for the introduction has provided me over the years with books and recommendations that have given me my most meaningful literary discoveries. He’s never let me down.

But back to Geoff. 

The first book of Dyers I read was called ‘Out of Sheer Rage’, a book he had wanted to write about D.H. Lawrence.  He had the desire to write a meaningful book about his hero but somehow life got in the way, so he more or less settled for writing about his indecision in how to best go about writing this book which in fact never does get written. He seriously does look for the man and we go with him on his journeys to Italy, Sicily, New Mexico, a Greek island and Nottinghamshire which all turn out to be a disappointment but somehow add to our enjoyment.  His witty, digressive, ramblings hooked me. I’m a sucker for disclosures of uncertainties.   Lawrence was there but Geoff Dyer was more there.

I’m not sure why I didn’t immediately search out another but not too long after I bumped into ‘Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi’ at a library sale.  These two stories have a watery connection and we understand through the title that Thomas Mann's presence is felt..  We follow Jeff, a journalist and somewhat of an alter ego, through the Venice Biennale in the company of a beautiful girl and through Dyer’s observations we experience the sexy buzz as well as the hollowness of this renowned Art Fair.  In spite of dismissing the art world Jeff seems to understand and find meaning in contemporary art as does Geoff. This bellini soaked experience eventually leads Jeff to his next assignment in Varanasi where the art world is replaced by a cultural kick in the head and among the ghats on the Ganges reality is gradually altered to a place of no return.  As usual, I was amazed by the writing and thought ‘‘this man ‘gets it’. He feels so close to his material.

Amazement can sometimes be ramped up a notch which is what happened when I recently read ‘But Beautiful’, Dyer’s self confessed historical fiction of several of the early jazz greats. Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus, Bud Powell, Ben Webster, Chet Baker, Duke Ellington and others live here. He has said that it was one of his easiest books to write and I can only guess that it was because he completely inhabits this music.  His writing was jazz.  His understanding of the men and their music was breathtaking to the point where I felt I had to read some of it out loud. I did and was exhausted after.  The fact that Dyer himself is a jazz aficionado contributed to the soul of this book but the empathy for the broken lives of many of these men comes from Geoff Dyer the man.

And now, in ‘The Ongoing Moment’ once again I am entranced.  Okay, I’ll confess that in his introduction to this book about photography, he said that it might irritate some people.  I was one of them for a while.  There was too much description of photos that weren’t reproduced in the book and I still think this was a mistake.  AND….the photos that are there are too small and printed on poor quality paper. That being said, after I had rifled back and forth for a bit I decided that no way was I going to abandon a book by my current hero.  ‘Okay Geoff’ I said, ‘It’s back to the beginning. I’ll give this another go and see where you’ll take me’.  How could I have doubted him? 

Dyer introduces us to, or reacquaints us with, some of the early artists of photography - most of European background.  William Henry Fox Talbot, Eugene Atget, Alfred Steiglitz, Edward Steichen, Edward Weston, Paul Strand, Dorothea Lange, Andre Kertesz, Walker Evans, Brassai.  I must stop as this list misses many and does nothing to tell you about the essence of this book. The first sentence will give you some idea. 

 Dyer writes: ‘I am not the first researcher to draw inspirations from a ‘certain Chinese encyclopaedia’ described by Borges.  According to this arcane work ‘animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the Emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s-hair brush; (l) et cetera; (m) those that have just broken the flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies.’

Although the wonderful eccentricity of this list is not in evidence, it does tell you a bit about Dyers leaning towards ‘seeing’ these photographs through an organizing principle that is uniquely his.  He draws connections for us through the photographs taken over the years and if he talks about photographs of men wearing hats, perhaps also wearing an overcoat; or maybe a photo of a room with a hat in evidence, a hat has never felt more like a hat than when he draws our attention to it. He sees what is there and gives it its due dignity.  Even if it’s a battered dignity. The details we wouldn’t have noticed without him create a desired intimacy. He talks about the many photographs containing stairs, benches, blind people, barber shops, never ending roadways and the doors and windows that he uses to pull us in to a world seen through the recognized creative awareness of these artists. The writer is one of them.

You can tell that this book captivated me and what might have been a dry read, in the hands of Geoff Dyer, became another book of enduring admiration. 


Monday, 30 June 2014

Historical Fiction

This is my first attempt at literary criticism where I've not written with a sense of intense admiration for my subjects.  I must ask myself why I've jumped in the deep end of the pool with little swimming ability.  I hope to stay afloat.

‘Z’ by Therese Anne Fowler – a small critique

There is a danger in reading historical fiction.  A danger that the words you read will become the truth, your truth, in spite of the fact that you know that the bones of the story are all that is real and even they are often porous. I distrust this construction and the writer who is trying to convince me that the words put into the mouths of once living beings are alive when I know they are only attempts at breathing life into something that once was. ‘Did she really say that?’ I think. ‘He wouldn't have written that!  What gives this writer the right to speak for these people?’  I become unreasonable.

Unless the writer is exceptionally gifted at taking me to a place where the writing is good enough to convince me that this story, however untruthful, is worth paying attention to and giving it due admiration for itself, I feel nothing but annoyance. 

If the subject being written about has lived a life that draws you to its particulars, a well researched biography without too much authorial commentary is for me, much preferable. 

Of course now I am thinking of historical fiction I have enjoyed.  Rose Tremain’s ‘Restoration’ and ‘Music and Silence’ which informed a period I knew little about and was peopled with some fictional characters that added to the tenor of the times, created a feeling of acceptance for me about the whole book.  Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ is another example.  Am I less critical, more detached, looking down the long lens of history?

But let’s talk about Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald as they appear in ‘Z’.  So much has been written about these two, who became myths of the Jazz Age, that they have become trapped in what we want to make of them. We follow them through from their meeting to their early tragic deaths and along the way touch on acquired friendships.  Interesting people all, and I think further reading about Sara and Gerald Murphy, Gertrude Stein, Earnest Hemingway, Ezra Pound etc, for those of you interested in this period and these people, would be better spent than what is on offer here.

Ms Fowler has attempted in ‘Z’ to reveal what she feels is Zelda’s neglected side of the story.  The warning bells sounded for me from the get go.  We read a letter written to Scott, only to discover that this was not a real letter but only one that Ms Fowler thought Zelda might have written.  Knowing that much of their correspondence exists, I was off to a bad start. I kept waiting for Zelda to become the person history knows her to have been but instead had to do with a woman who presented with flippant banality. I winced at some of the anachronistic dialogue and waited for better to come.

 We know that beneath these superficialities were beating hearts and creative ideas waiting to be born. Their triumph is that many were. In a book of this sort, context and point of view are victims of the truth.    Fowler writes that Zelda urged Scott to trade on his popularity and not to try and create art.  After all, what’s wrong with people liking what you do?  And while we’re at it, ‘Would anyone like to dance?’  I think the real Zelda would not recognize herself here.  Or at least I hope not. Their creative work exists for us to judge, but unless we have explored it, this book that is so short on depth, leaves that creativity in the shallows.

Yes, I know that there were too many bottles of champagne – Scott consuming more than his share and that Zelda did contribute to the content of his writing, but the genius of that writing was all his own.  Her own creative leanings did suffer because of her mental instability and the social milieu they moved in but this book, which has a tendency towards gossip and general belittling, sells both Zelda and Scott short and the essence of both these people is sadly missing. They deserve better.

Therese Anne Fowler should be credited with crafting a story that moves along briskly and as an introduction, if you’re willing to not try and separate fact from fiction, you may spend an enjoyable few days.


Friday, 20 June 2014

An Acknowledgement

Three posts after my hesitant foray into the world of blogging, I feel it is time to thank my friend Devorah Peterson for her support, encouragement and general nudging me towards what can be an uncertain endeavor, but ultimately provides deeper meaning to my life.  This of course is…… expressing myself creatively.  I feel…..I falter….I make a leap of faith.

Devorah has been blogging for a number of years and her range of ideas and interests have been written with wonderful clarity and understanding for her subjects.  They have always been a pleasure to read.  She is now embarked upon re-acquainting herself with the piano and writing about this process with true feeling.

With pleasure I recommend her blog:  

Wednesday, 18 June 2014


Gustave Flaubert
    Loving books so much has put me in a quandary. The desire to read more extensively has become a dilemma.  ‘What a dilemma!’ you might think, but believe me wanting to tie up the loose ends and to finish the complete oeuvre of writers long dead is no easy task.  And what about rereading favorites?  I’d like to visit Stendhal’s ‘The Red and the Black’ again but ‘The Charterhouse of Parma’ is still sitting unread on my shelf.  Zadie Smith has recently written about George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch – a book that completely absorbed me at the time – and I know that after I finish Smith’s essay, Middlemarch will be on my list.  Should I fit in another Dickens…….finish Proust and maybe even have another go at Ulysses?  Determination permitting.  And all the Russians…..I have to get back to them!  I’m sure you’re aware that this would just be the tip of the iceberg.  What about all the wonderful writers working today?  I’m exhausted just thinking about all this. It kept me awake last night. Seriously.

    I want to write about a particular writer or more particularly a certain book I’ve loved but this unfinished business is making me somewhat schizophrenic.  I headed off to the library today with Flaubert in mind, his travels in Egypt uppermost, as I thought that having traveled there myself, it might be interesting to have a mental chat with him about the place and perhaps write about it.  I did get the book but only after being sidetracked by an Irish writer named Sean O’Faolain whose short stories captivated me a few years back.  I came home with two of his books, one being an autobiography which I can hardly wait to crack.

    But all this is getting away from the underlying reason why perhaps I’m feeling this need to sum up. To beat the clock as it were.  I think it comes down to the value I place on reading well and the idea I have that I shouldn’t miss any of the wisdom that writers who have more than proven their worth will add to my life. Harold Bloom says ‘we read deeply for varied reasons……that we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way things are.’ He also recommends deep reading as a difficult pleasure which may be a definition of the Sublime and says  ‘there is a reader’s Sublime, and it seems the only secular transcendence we can ever attain, except for the even more precarious transcendence we call “falling in love.”  I must say that I felt grateful to this man for having written about this ‘condition’, an idea that I too have entertained.  It will bear thinking about further.

    In the meantime……what am I to do about this desire to gobble up literature?  I know I need to push myself away from the table and let digestion take place.  Tomorrow I’ll revisit the menu.  For now, it’s time to sidle over to Flaubert and share in the remarkable feast of this ‘sensibility on tour’. 


Tuesday, 17 June 2014

A Portrait of Awe


    Today, Vladimir Nabokov, is for you.

   This morning I approached my library with caution, trying to ease in to inspiration, eyes scanning the spines of my friends and loved ones.  Would a muse be among them today?  Uncertainty rattled me.  How to choose among so many favorites?  And there he was, my hero for today, one side leaning against someone from Ireland and on the other, pressed tightly against him, a decrepit Tolstoy, yellowed and brittle with age. ‘I promise to return you later’, I thought, ‘as I know you whisper together in the night’.  

   Nabokov is not someone I know well.  I’m sure Lolita introduced us but we fell out of touch for years, with only one or two other works of fiction punctuating the silence. I thought about him often and knew that his reputation was large, well respected and intimidating. We kept our distance, with only occasional eye contact in a library or bookstore, until fate intervened when a friend sent me a copy of ‘Speak, Memory’ and the courtship began. To know someone’s history, particularly through the imaginative lens of such an honest and acute eye, is a privilege. My memory of his memories has somewhat faded but the awe I felt towards the brilliance of his writing has remained.  

   What is this nature of being impressed?  This reverence?  I only know that I can call it at will by merely holding my copy of ‘The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov’ in my hands. The lilac cover that promises transport.  A temporal intimacy – a phantom lover. My admiration hovers between respect for his mind and its ability to pull from its depths imaginative flights of iridescence as beautifully marked as the wings of his beloved butterflies. This gentleman with old fashioned ways who could twist time with acrobatic ease never ceases to amaze me.    
   Here is an exquisite rendering of a painful and difficult subject. It is from the novel ‘Pnin’ and is referencing the Holocaust.  I’m quoting here from an excerpt by Martin Amis in the Guardian Nov.14, 2009 
‘At an √©migr√© house party in rural America a Madam Shpolyanski mentions her cousin Mira and asks Timofey Pnin if he has heard of her “terrible end”. “Indeed, I have,” Pnin answers. Gentle Timofey sits on alone in the twilight.  Then Nabokov gives us this: 
“What chatty Madam Shpolyanski mentioned had conjured up Mira’s image with unusual force.  This was disturbing.  Only in the detachment of an incurable complaint, in the sanity of near death, could one cope with this for a moment.  In order to exist rationally, Pnin had taught himself….never to remember Mira Belochkin – not because….the evocation of a youthful love affair, banal and brief, threatened his peace of mind….but because, if one were quite sincere with oneself, no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira’s death were possible. One had to forget – because one could not live with the thought that this graceful, fragile tender young woman with those eyes, that smile, those gardens and snows in the background, had been brought in a cattle car and killed by an injection of phenol into the heart, into the gentle heart one had heard beating under one’s lips in the dusk of the past.” 

   My admiration for this man who was able to shine a light of such brilliance into the painful and disturbing corners of life with such understanding and tenderness is boundless.  I admit to viewing him through the colored panes of glass through which he viewed his youth but at this point I have no inclination to blink. 

   I’ve spent a few weeks now with Nabokov and my limited selection of his writings, and it’s time to deepen our acquaintance. I have a list.  For now, I will take you Vladimir and put you back on the shelf with your fellow explorers of the human heart. 




Thursday, 12 June 2014

Akin to Love

    ‘If the words are flowing, this is a good thing’.  So says Zadie Smith, a talented British writer who has propelled me here to this page with the hopes that she’s right.  If the words are not flowing but the heart is racing will this do? It’s not always easy to be articulate on matters we feel deeply about but here goes.

   I have just finished listening to a recent broadcast of Zadie Smith in interview. Her passion for reading struck such a response in me that I want to be her friend.  Even better, I want to be her.  When someone understands what you can’t do without, books in this case, the emotion I feel is akin to love. If you tell me that you love to read I’m sure that my pupils dilate.  I want to back you into a corner and say “what and who do you love to read”?  And then I wait for the click.

   It’s only during the past few years that I’ve become so aware of the importance that books have played in my life.  And here I falter.  How can I go back all those years when the seed was planted which grew like Jack’s beanstock.  The many shoots that took me places, across years and countries and enriched me to the degree that I sometimes feel my hyperbole an embarrassment.  Some call it an escape. Maybe it is, but the gratitude just goes on. As well, I don’t think it’s an escape from but an escape to.  When impressed by a beautiful sentence, I sometimes feel the gift so keenly, that I close the book, hug it to myself and kiss the cover.  Am I crazy?  I don’t think so.  I’m sure there are many of us affected by the beauty of ideas well put who will relate to this.

   So here I confess my weakness for developing crushes on writers.  “Martin Amis, you are some guy”, I said to myself out loud while reading one of his essays. That day I was full of admiration for him, his intelligence, and his savage wit.  The book and the writer are inseparable.  I think this is the reason that I’ve always avoided Writer’s Festivals.  I’m afraid there may be a disconnect between the flesh and blood person and their work.  The work stands for all time in what for me may be perfection.  The writer in all probability will disappoint me – I’m sure they’ll lag behind.
Reading of other’s enthusiasms – of what they read, why they read it, where they read it, always interests me.  Harold Bloom exhorts us to reach for the top and engage with the best, and I know he’s right. I could go on and on, citing writers who have written on the pleasures and values of reading – writers who are much more eloquent on this subject than I could ever hope to be. A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel is full of the most wonderful information on just that, and so readable. Jorge Luis Borges hoped that paradise would be like some sort of library. I hope he’s right.  In the meantime I’ll continue to wander through my own book filled labyrinth, always on the look out for kindred spirits.

   My heart has slowed. It’s time to open my book and hold hands with my current crush, Jose Saramago.  There is always warmth.