The Passion of Letters (2)

This is the follow-up article to EPISTOLARY PLEASURES, posted 22/6/15.

I am reading Jonathan Galassi’s novel, Muse, an indulgent, insider’s treatment of independent literary publishing houses, together with their publishers, editors and pesky authors. (Jonathan Galassi is publisher at Farrar Straus Giroux, and Homer Stern, one of the main characters of Muse, shares much in common with Roger Straus.) The first half of the novel consists of long, flat character sketches, with no narrative to flesh out the characters or, indeed, make them stick, dotted with pseudonyms for well-known writers such as Sontag (here a black woman writer, but otherwise Sontagian), Brodsky (can’t resist citing S and B together), Bellow, Malamud, Walcott, and many many others. (Even our Les is mentioned later in the book, and by intimate first name – no pseudonym for him.) Fortunately Muse picks up halfway through when it shifts from tuneless character description to a story with narrative pull.

So I’m reading about Ida Perkins, the famous, successful poet at the centre of this novel, when I come across a reference to onion skin paper. The American narrator associates it with European paper suppliers. That sends me on a search of French web-sites for papier en pelure d’oignon (pelure, I have just discovered in my long-neglected Petit Larousse, is the skin, peau, found on fruits and vegetables). Much to my disappointment, thirty minutes of wandering the web has yielded nothing so concrete or desirable as un canet de papier pelure (a pad of onion skin paper).

Onion skin paper, so rare in today’s world, is mentioned in Muse, a recently published novel. And I recall that Patrick White, in order to save on postage, used onion skin paper to send his manuscripts – typed single spaced – to his overseas publishers. I’m scrabbling for onion skin paper references, as if the mention might somehow conjure up the real thing. (Jean Porter, Dorothy’s mother, sent me an aged half-quarto onion skin pad containing a half a dozen airmail blue sheets. I now ask all people of a certain age to search deep in their desk drawers for long-forgotten onion skin pads. And I ask the same of you, too, dear followers of this website.) The fact is I can’t have too much of the stuff.

I pass the days with a heightened awareness of onion skin paper; I’m also alert to any references to letter-writing. The latter are surprisngly common given the ubiquity of email, twitter, texting and the like. The mind seeks out what it needs. If it is focussed on onion skin paper, it will find references to onion skin paper that would have been previously missed. A mind attuned to letters will find them, in drawers and filing cabinets, in conversation, and most particularly in books.

One of the great pleasures of reading is that it generously satisfies the bookish wanderlust of the devoted bibliophile. You start with one book, follow a reference to a second, double back to the first; then you might take a tangent off to a third book, a fourth, a fifth, and so on. People think that this sort of meandering was invented with the web, but of course it has been around for as long as print.

Last month was a Ted Hughes month for me. I began with Elaine Feinstein’s concise and informative biography, moved on to Hughes’s poetry, and I revisited Janet Malcolm’s excellent book, The Silent Woman, about the stoushes surrounding the writing of the various biographies of Sylvia Plath. One of these biographies was written by Anne Stevenson – a very torrid and trying project for her – who, I discovered in my rereading of Malcolm’s book, wrote a verse novel called Correspondences. A Family History in Letters, (OUP, 1974.) This detail entirely escaped my attention when first I read Malcolm’s book in London, back in 1994, but then I was not alert to letters in the same way as I am now.

I finally located a copy of Stevenson’s book through Better World Books*, and it arrived a couple of days ago. It is a lovely red cloth hardback. It carries a library catalogue number plus the imprint of the library: University of California, Riverside. The withdrawal slip on the inside of the back cover is pristine: there has not been a single borrower. The spine of the book is very stiff, it does not feel as if this book has ever been opened. Sad, I find myself thinking, but pleased that this handsome book has found a home now with me..

The earliest poem-letter in the book is dated 1829, the latest, 1968. The letters are supplemented by fictional newspaper clippings and other bits and pieces of connective tissue. The book is slender, just 88 pages. I read it at a sitting and glean through these letters the lives and times of several generations of a New England family. The letters provide plenty of narrative, but, at the same time, they open up huge narrative spaces which I willingly fill.

This, I decide, is one of the pleasures of reading the letters of others: what is written leads easily on to what is not written – but could be. Or what’s an imagination for?** So it’s not simply the entrée to a private life that’s the attraction of letters, it is also that letters, from someone unknown to you written to someone else also unknown, provide space for you: the intruder, the snoop, the trespasser, the eavesdropper, the peeping Tom, the insatiably curious, the writer in search of characters: you.

I’ve always known this. So many diaries are written with an eye to posterity; the writer at her/his desk copying out today’s offering, every now and then glancing over a shoulder to see who is watching. Letters, too, can carry this same self-consciousness – but not all of them. In a single volume of a famous person’s letters it is not so difficult to determine which have been written primarily for future generations and which are utterly rooted in the time, the place and the grievances of the author’s present. This immediacy of an authentic letter is gold for all future readers, but particularly for biographers. Indeed, letters are the gold standard in manuscripts.

Janet Malcolm expresses this exactly. (The Silent Woman. Picador, 1994. P. 110.)

‘Letters … are the fossils of feeling. This is why biographers prize them so: they are biography’s only conduit to unmediated experience. Everything else the biographer touches is stale, hashed over, told and retold, dubious, inauthentic, suspect. Only when he (sic) reads a subject’s letters does the biographer feel he has come fully into his presence, and only when he quotes from the letters does he share with his readers his sense of life retrieved. And he shares something else: the feeling of transgression that comes from reading letters not meant for one’s eyes. He allows the reader to be a voyeur with him, to eavesdrop with him, to rifle desk drawers, to take what doesn’t belong to him. The feeling is not entirely pleasurable. The act of snooping carries with it a certain discomfort and unease: one would not like this to happen to oneself. When we are dead, we want to be remembered on our own terms, not on those of someone who has our most intimate, unconsidered, embarrassing letters in hand and proposes to read out loud from them to the world.’ (Emphasis added.)

In The Science of Departures, the character, Sylvie, who collects letters knows exactly this close, intimate connection with a stranger, this artless exposure of the letter-writer; she knows, too, the thrill of secret transgression. She was taught, as was I, that to open a letter not addressed to you was tantamount to stealing. It was, simply, one of the worst sins you could commit. Sylvie’s life is narrow. Born in 1930, she is too old to benefit from the freedoms of the 1960s, and too timid to draw from feminism and free education in the 1970s. The letters in her collection, about 200 in total, transport her to times and places she would never visit in a lifetime, and they take her into the hearts and minds of men and women whom, even if she were to meet them or their ilk, she could never know – or herself – so deeply or intimately as she does from their letters.

I find myself wondering if Sylvie’s life were fuller would she continue to collect letters. I have just finished a chapter in which I introduce her to the man who will become her lover (she’s in her fifties, it will be a grand passion) so I will have to decide at some point. Yet my inclination is that her letter collecting will endure: that most lives ought to be large enough to contain more than one passion, and messy enough to benefit from the the order that accompanies any collection.

Sylvie is not the only character I’ve created whose pleasures are bound up with letters. In Reunion, (4th Estate, 2009), Jack, knows the power and pleasure of writing and receiving letters. He and his beloved Ava complete their post-graduate study in Oxford. She stays in Oxford with her husband, while Jack returns to Australia. The following is from Reunion, p.6.

‘Within days of arriving back in Melbourne Jack had written to Ava, a long humorous account of the potholes of homecoming that disguised the misery he actually felt. And she had quickly responded. The pleasure of that letter was astonishing. This written communication, Jack realised, involved the two of them in the sort of intense and intimate conversation he had always longed to have with her. Soon they were exchanging weekly letters in what would eventually become a twenty-year correspondence.’

Jack has loved Ava almost from the time of their first meeting. The correspondence between them manages to sustain his unrequited love, and it does so safely, fuelled not by uncertain and flawed reality but rather his fertile and utopian imagination.

‘Anyone who has enjoyed an intense written relationship is well-acquainted with the impact of words that are read rather than spoken. In the silence of a room, with all stops pulled out on imagination, emotions swirl like magma below a charged earth. You feel the fire and the erotic plumes, you spark with possibilities, and it begins even before you open the latest instalment, when you collect the mail and recognise her letter. You know her handwriting, the way she prints your name and address, the way she underscores the area code, you know her scrawl of sender details on the back, you can see her fingerprints, her signature as it were, all over the envelope. You feel the quickening of your heart, the thump of anticipation as you take the mail inside. You sort through the letters, you leave hers till last. Then you make yourself a fresh cup of coffee, sit in a favourite chair, open her letter and read, once, twice, three times, the burn of just you and Ava together and nothing to intrude on your secret and highly charged tryst. And during the writing and the reading and the re-readings and all the times in between as you shop and cook and clean, as you sit out the tedium of dried-out colleagues and plodding students, you not only relive your love, you make it and remake it and embed it in a world that seems both miraculous and tangible. There is nothing to compare with the clandestine enclave of letters.’ Reunion, p. 139.

And this is the case whether love is your passion, as is the situation with Jack, or whether the passion is for something else: books, ideas, humour, friendship.

Since acquiring my onion skin paper I have been writing letters. In addition to my old friend who lives in the next suburb, I have written to my agent, Barbara Mobbs (and also Patrick White’s agent). How well she remembers onion skin paper, Barbara wrote back to me. ‘Having left home at 19 and lived all over the place, I must have written hundreds of letters on that paper. And yes,’ she adds, ‘PW loved it because it made the postage cheaper when he sent the novels to London and New York.’

Most especially I have written to my old friend in London, the one with whom I used regularly to exchange long and thoughtful letters about life, ideas and the books we were working on (she is a scholar of the long 18thC). F and I have frequent contact via email, but the letter I sent her on onion skin paper and the one I received back from her have quite a different depth and tone from our emails.

I think more carefully when I write a letter, it is a far more contemplative, ruminative process than email. In preparing to write, my mind meanders, collects, connects, and in the actual writing the mind moves forward. It is a deeply pleasurable activity.

I recommend it.

________________

*Better World Books is an excellent social venture that recycles old books, primarily from libraries but also other sources. From its profits, it donates back to libraries as well as to literacy programs. If it’s a second-hand book you are wanting and a hike through your local second-hand bookstores has proved fruitless, try betterworldbooks.com rather than feeding the behemoth Amazon.

 

**’Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?’
          Andrea del Sarto. Robert Browning.

_______________

On an entirely different matter: for those of you in Melbourne, I am repeating my National Library of Australia’s Ray Mathew Lecture, titled PRIVATE PLEASURES, PUBLIC EXPOSURE: the Imagination in the Digital Age, at 6pm, 5th August, Boyd Centre, 207 City Road, Southbank. The event is free but bookings are essential on PH: 03 9699 8822 or email: rsvp@australianbookreview.com.au

EPISTOLARY PLEASURES

Remember how it was? You’d go to the letterbox and among the bills and bank statements, the flyers and advertisments, there would be a proper letter. You would know it immediately by the good-quality envelope, your name and address hand-written on the front, and the sender’s address inscribed on the back. Quite often the letter had the added attraction of being airmail, with foreign stamps and a whiff of the exotic.

A proper letter and you weigh it in your hand, and it’s thick and spongy and it comes all the way from London where your old school friend lives, or New York where another friend from school days has made her home. And you take it inside and lay it on the bench while you make yourself a coffee. Then you take your coffee and your letter to the couch, switch on the radiator, prop your feet on the pouffe, and you open your letter and you read it, you savour it word by word, line by line, page by page.

I knitted a vest for my London friend. She said that wearing a hand-knitted jumper – a woolly – showed that someone cared about you. I think a letter, a proper letter does much the same. After all, the writer took some considerable time to write to you – to you, and not someone else. And they did so not in any slap-dash fashion but thoughtfully. They selected what they would tell you – share with you – and how best to express it. Those communications borne by letters were written in privacy and contemplation and they were read in the same way. It is not surprising that relationships were cemented through letters.

I have had a number of significant correspondents in my life. At one time several hours a week would be spent communicating with these friends. Even after email became part of the everyday world I continued writing letters to special friends. And then, over a period of time, instead of proper letters that weigh in the hand and give a throb to the heart, I started writing letter-like emails. But it’s not the same. It’s not the same at all.

LETTERS

LETTERS

One of the characters in my novel-in-progress, The Science of Departures, collects letters. Her name is Sylvie and she was born in 1930. At the time she appears in the novel it is 1987 and she has a cache of 200 letters written by strangers. She finds her letters in the pages of secondhand books, she finds them in cigar boxes at opp shops. The first letters of her collection she discovered in her kitchen when the lino was being replaced. There they were among the layers of newspaper that formed the old underlay.

In imagining these letters that Sylvie collects I was reminded of onion skin paper. This was airmail paper that I used back in the 1980s: fine, tissue-thin paper with a wrinkly surface. It was gorgeous to write on, and one of life’s sensual experiences. I decided to buy a pad of this paper, remind myself of its pleasures.

I was shocked to discover that such a thing no longer exists. All airmail paper has gone the way of the tape cassette. I could find light-weight, hand-made Japanese paper; I could find light-weight cotton paper, but my searches – world-wide – for onion skin paper left me disappointed. I managed to source from Amazon paper that purported to be onion skin, but when it arrived it was smooth not wrinkled and the ink bled on its surface. It was definitely not onion skin.

Finally, I found not one, but two packs of onion skin paper and envelopes, one green and the other white. Both were available from WHY NOT COLLECT IT,  a secondhand store in Haliburton, Ontario, Canada, and listed on ebay. By this time in my searches my desire for onion skin paper was urgent. It was no longer a choice. I had to have it.

I registered with ebay. So impatient was I for the onion skin paper I did not bother with reading the ebay guidelines. I was the first bidder on both packs of paper. Twenty-four hours later I was informed I’d been outbid on both. I couldn’t believe it. Who else in the world would want, would need this paper as much as I did. I increased my bid only to discover I was still outbid. I then noticed something about auto-bidding, at which point I took a quick lesson from an ebay aficionado. With 5 days to go before bidding stopped I put in maximum bids for both items and let the ebay auto-gremlins do the work. Twenty-four hours passed. I was still the highest bidder. Another twenty-four and I was still the front-runner. And so through the third and fourth and final days and then I was informed I’D WON. The paper was mine.

Three weeks later, the package arrived from Canada. The paper is exactly right – although in single sheets rather than the pad I used back in the 1980s. A few weeks ago I started writing letters to an old friend (to whom I used to write decades ago). He lives in the next suburb but one and I could stroll to his place in under an hour. It doesn’t matter. He possesses writing paper and a fountain pen and a very fetching italic script. He will be the first recipient of my beautiful onion-skin paper, purchased for purposes of research but affording enormous pleasure at the hand of the researcher.

Basildon Onion Skin Paper

Basildon Onion Skin Paper

POSSIBILITY

POSSIBILITY

Kierkegaard wrote that ‘Life must be lived forwards but can only be understood backwards.’ This is a warning to all those tempted to write an early memoir. Although given how very many early memoirs are produced these days – dull, superficial, even soporific accounts of lives that do not warrant remembering much less sharing – no one is taking much notice of Kierkegaard. In 1977, Tom Wolfe published an essay called the ‘Me Decade’ in which he drew attention to the cult of the self. How much more intense and widespread has the focus on self become. Ours is the ME ME ME ERA. Sharing is a hallmark of contemporary life, and an early memoir allows for the possibility of several more volumes before one is confined to the grave.

But it is not memoir nor the dominance of the self that has prompted this note, rather what interests me is the increased understanding that comes with advancing years to which Kierkegaard alludes. For those excited by understanding, this is one of the rewards of ageing. For myself, it’s a great relief to know that so much is behind me: mistakes never to be repeated, misbegotten lovers, misspent moments that might stretch into months, the weight problems, the money problems, the job problems. It’s satisfying to have sufficient understanding to forgive my parents their mistakes. I understand the madness of past relationships, the blind longings for love, I understand now, long after the fact, the roads I should have taken. I am much wiser now I am no longer young.

I’m not nostalgic, I don’t long for my youth – I didn’t care for it much while it was happening – and besides, with so much left to do I simply don’t have time for a rerun. I like my increased understanding. I like the fact that so many issues that caused me stress and sleepless nights simply do not matter any more. But I do have one major regret: the shrinking of possibility that accompanies the passing years.

At 40 I could still study medicine if I wanted, I could still expect to get around to the lesser plays of Shakespeare and the second half of Ulysses, I could delay returning to my piano studies. If I’d been without a partner – I wasn’t – there was still the likelihood I would meet someone who would become my beloved and journey with me through the years. I had time, and with time came the possibility of things happening now or later, some planned, others unexpected. At 50, possibility was still strongly evident. But a mere ten years later and possibility, ‘amazing possibility’ is dwindling.

Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus, argued that what kept people from suicide was their hope that conditions of life would improve. Hope has always nudged precariously close to delusion, I’ve always thought, but possibility – well, that’s something else.

If you consider life to be an adventure, if you are alert to unforeseen possibility you are constantly surprised and often full of wonder. You’ll see the moon at its fullest, you’ll see it as a mere sliver of finger-nail and both will invigorate; you’ll see the red-rump parrots scratching in the grass; you’ll relish the conversation with a stranger on the train; you’ll count your blessings at having found an extraordinary Neruda poem, at hearing Messiaen’s ‘Vingt Regards. This is not wide-eyed Pollyanna stuff, it is, simply, LIFE writ large. Every day brings the possibility of revelations, of alive-ness, of wonder. Given life won’t last forever, allowing for possibility seems a sensible way of going.

But now it seems I have reached the age of diminishing possibilities. At 40 I would tell myself that when I had finished my current novel I would spend a few months at the piano. At fifty I promised myself that when the current novel was over I would, again, tackle Ulysses. At 60, I doubt I will ever return to my study of the piano or finish Ulysses. I’d prefer to reread Proust than Joyce (and at this stage it is an either/or situation). And I’d prefer to reread the major plays of Shakespeare rather than plod through the lesser ones. I’ll manage with my trips and stumbles over the keyboard, and I’ve adjusted to there not being a beloved. And while I know this state of mind reveals a certain wisdom, I long, not for youth, but for the huge unchartered terrain of possibility that was a life still to be lived.

READING AGAIN. Oliver Sacks’s new memoir.

I’ve had an excellent couple of weeks. In addition to my on-going reading of Soviet history, I read Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk, a wonderful account of how MacDonald trained a goshawk called Mabel at a time when she was experiencing the obsession, the desire for control and the longing for abandon that accompanies grief. I read Anne Tyler’s latest, A Spool of Blue Thread, an enjoyable story of the love, the loyalties, the secrets and the stressed connections of family. And I revisited Neruda’s love poems. Two in particular, I read over and over again.

IF YOU FORGET ME
Trans: Donald D. Walsh

I want you to know
one thing.

You know how this is:
if I look
at the crystal moon, at the red branch
of the slow autumn at my window,
if I touch
near the fire
the impalpable ash
or the wrinkled body of the log,
everything carries me to you,
as if everything that exists,
aromas, light, metals,
were little boats
that sail
toward those isles of yours that wait for me.

Well, now,
if little by little you stop loving me
I shall stop loving you little by little.

If suddenly
you forget me
do not look for me,
for I shall already have forgotten you.

If you think it long and mad,
the wind of banners
that passes through my life,
and you decide
to leave me at the shore
of the heart where I have roots,
remember
that on that day,
at that hour,
I shall lift my arms
and my roots will set off
to seek another land.

But
if each day,
each hour,
you feel that you are destined for me
with implacable sweetness,
if each day a flower
climbs up to your lips to seek me,
ah my love, ah my own,
in me all that fire is repeated,
in me nothing is extinguished or forgotten,
my love feeds on your love, beloved,
and as long as you live it will be in your arms
without leaving mine.

AND ALSO:

THERE’S NO FORGETTING (SONATA)
Translated by: Forrest Gander

Were you to ask me where I’ve been
I would have to say, “There comes a time.”
I would have to tell how dirt mottles the rocks,
how the river, running, runs out of itself:
I know only what left the birds bereaved,
the sea forsaken, or my sister weeping.
Why so many places, why does one day
cling to another? Why does a night’s blackness
drain into the mouth? Why the dead?

Were you to ask where I come from, I would have to talk
with shattered things,
with all too bitter tools,
with massive festering beasts, now and then,
and with my grief-bitten heart.

Unremembered are those who crossed over
and the pale dove asleep in oblivion,
only teary faces,
fingers at the throat,
and whatever falls from the leaves:
the darkness of a burnt-out day,
a day flavoured with our curdled blood.

Here I have violets, swallows,
we want anything and it appears
in that long train of impressions
that marks the passing of kindness and time.

But let’s go no further than the teeth,
we won’t chew on husks heaped up by silence,
because I don’t know how to answer:
there are so many dead,
and so many levees the red sun has cloven
and so many heads that knock against hulls,
and so many hands that shut up kisses,
and so many things I want to forget.

If my reading had stopped at this point I would have known a glorious week or so, but there was more to come. Oliver Sacks has recently published a memoir, On the Move: A Life (Knopf). I first learned of it in Jerome Groopman’s admiring review in the 21/5/15 issue of NYRB. I read the Groopman’s essay, I checked Readings website – yes, yes, in stock – and ordered a copy. It arrived the very next day and the day after that, a Saturday, I began to read.

I have previously written about how our fast-paced, ever-changing, ever-charged, digitally-mediated lives threaten the slow, leisurely, deep immersion that concentrated reading requires. We start to read and minutes later we’re checking mail, messages, Facebook, twitter, news. Or — we start to read and minutes later we’re checking a fact on the web; from there we are led through a maze of interesting and immediately forgettable information, returning to the book in 20 or 30 minutes having completely lost the thread of our reading. I have written elsewhere how, without practice, the ability to concentrate on a single task is quickly eroded, how, in my own case, there are times when I wonder if I have lost forever the joy of a day spent with a book, starting it in the morning and finishing it by day’s end.

My week spent with Helen MacDonald, Anne Tyler and the incomparable Pablo Neruda (and yes, the Soviets) led me to last Saturday and Oliver Sacks. I began his book in the morning and I read all day. I was gripped by this man and his story.

I have written about Sacks before (see ‘Oliver Sacks: Anthropologist of Mind’ in the published essays section of this website), have long been captivated by both the scientist and the great humanist. Captivated and grateful. And so again with his new memoir, although more fervently this time. We live in a culture in which the self seems always to be centre-stage, and care and curiosity about one’s fellow human beings is not a priority.

Reading Oliver Sacks I am brought back to the joys of prolonged, uninterrupted reading and the commensurate pleasures of solitude and contemplation. I am also reminded of the best that makes us human: curiosity, care for others, appreciation of others, the muting of self in order to respond to the world about us, intellectual rigour, and love.

SUSAN SONTAG REVIEW

The following review was published in Australian Book Review, March 2015 issue.

ABR has grown in recent years and is well worth a look – both the print version and the on-line version. I’ve just joined the board of ABR, and as a trenchant non-board, non-meeting sort of person, this act says volumes about the publication.

 

SUSAN SONTAG. A Biography. Daniel Schreiber. Trans from German: David Dollenmayer. Northwestern U Press, Evanston, Illinois. $62.95 cloth, 280 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8101-2583-4.

Susan Sontag. Jerome Boyd Maunsell. Critical Lives Series. Reaktion Books. London. $29.99 pb, 214 pp. ISBN: 978 1 78023 288 1

Susan Sontag

At the age of eight I wanted to be a novelist. By the age of eighteen, having fallen in love with an intellectual, I aspired to be a novelist with sturdy intellectual credentials. There was much work to be done. My beloved set me a course of essential reading, including Susan Sontag’s first two essay collections and her two early novels.

The intellectual lover moved on as youthful lovers do, but Sontag remained: a reliable and enduring guide through my formative years. And while she was not my only guide, she was the most compelling, the most provocative and, indubitably, the most beautiful.

Her essays revealed who I should be reading, whose films I should be seeing, whose art I should be viewing. Sontag alerted me to the style of camp, the power of metaphor, to the complex meanings of photography and pornography. There was a moral imperative operating here – to not know was to be intellectually negligent – and an urgency too: her enthusiasms, the ideas that captivated her and the people she admired, were essential to an intellectual in the making. Sontag introduced me to Walter Benjamin, Borges, Simone Weil, Artaud, Barthes, Elias Canetti and many other luminaries. She shaped my understanding of the films of Godard and Bergman. It was Sontag who had me lining up for hours outside a San Francisco theatre, under assault from neo-Nazis, in order to see a one-off screening of Syberberg’s seven-hour marathon, Our Hitler. A Film from Germany.

The first three essay collections, Against Interpretation (1966), Styles of Radical Will (1969) and Under the Sign of Saturn (1980), contain many pieces that still pack a punch today. In contrast, the two early novels, The Benefactor (1963) and Death Kit (1967) were always a struggle. At my first attempts, and with the blindness of the acolyte, I believed my failure to appreciate them was indeed my failure, and not the fault of the work; back in those days, Susan, my Susan, was infallible. That the novels were bad – which they are – simply was not an option.

Sontag’s intellect was voracious, her passion for life was insatiable. She wrote essays, monographs, fiction, she directed plays and films, she was a political activist, she was president of PEN, she travelled extensively, she had many friends and lovers.

From the beginning she was the sort of writer to go against mainstream ideas. In the 1960s, when most intellectuals were narrowly focussed on high culture, she argued the case for popular culture. By the 1990s, when pop culture was thriving and high culture was languishing at the university gates, she took up the banner for high culture. In an interview with Allan Gregg conducted in the late 1990s she said that the role of the writer is to be ‘somewhat adversarial’.

Sontag was forceful, she was eloquent and, yes, she was adversarial. Such characteristics inspire strong responses – accolades as well as criticism. But the qualities which produce exciting, contentious, courageous work are unlikely to emerge from a sweet, gentle, empathic nature. As Yeats suggested: it’s ‘perfection of the life, or of the work’. Some of the responses to Sontag have garnered considerable notoriety, such as Camille Paglia’s diatribe, ‘Sontag Bloody Sontag’ (Vamps and Tramps, 1994), and Terry Castles’ wry, disarmingly honest yet appreciative essay, ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ (LRB 17/3/2005). A particularly informative and well-received essay about Sontag’s life and work is Joan Acocella’s ‘The Hunger Artist’ published in The New Yorker of 6/3/2000, while a staggeringly mean-spirited essay has come from Elliot Weinberger in his review of At the Same Time, Sontag’s posthumous collection (NYRB, 16/8/2007).

Daniel Schreiber’s biography, originally published in German in 2007, is, to my knowledge, the first book-length study to have appeared after Sontag’s death in December 2004. During the writing of his book, Schreiber was aware that David Rieff, Sontag’s son, planned to publish his mother’s journals. The first volume of these, Reborn, was not to appear until 2009 and Rieff refused Schreiber’s request to view the diaries prior to publication. Rieff’s own deeply personal and anguished memoir of his mother’s last illness and death, Swimming in a Sea of Death, was not published until 2008, and Rieff himself granted only one interview to Schreiber. Annie Leibovitz, Sontag’s partner for the last fifteen years of her life, refused Schreiber an interview. To write a biography without input from major players and source material is a risky exercise. In Schreiber’s case, he has failed to pull it off. His is an irritating, amateurish, tepid biography that provides a pedestrian overview of Sontag’s work and fails to illuminate the woman herself.

A good deal of Schreiber’s material is drawn from interviews with Sontag ‘friends’ – Stephen Koch, Richard Howard, Steve Wasserman, Wendy Lesser among others. The nature of these friendships, their duration and dynamic, is given little or no explanation in the text. This, combined with the absence of an acknowledgements section, leaves the reader unable to judge both the worth and integrity of this source material. Sontag valued friendship; at the same time, she was quick to judge and would sever relations with friends if they disappointed her. Enduring friendship was not one of her strong suits, so when ‘friends’ provide so much information we need to know something about them. (An entertaining account of friendship Sontag-style is given by Terry Castles in ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ – an essay which, incidentally, includes no mention of any sexual connection between these two alpha females. Yet Schreiber refers to Castles as ‘Sontag’s later lover’ (p.93), referencing an interview he conducted with Castles. Terry Castles has never been coy in print. If she and Sontag had dallied, not to have included this titbit in her essay but conveyed it to Schreiber for his book strikes me as very out-of-character.)

The published sources Schreiber uses are commonly known to Sontag followers, the book lacks a proper index, it contains no images. I did not learn anything new, and was constantly frustrated by what had been left out.

Jerome Boyd Maunsell’s short biography covers both the life and the work and integrates the two effectively. Maunsell draws judiciously on the journals as well as Sontag’s body of work. He also makes relevant use of Rieff’s memoir, as well as Sempre Susan (2011), a memoir written by Sigrid Nunez, an early girlfriend of Reiff’s, who lived with him and Sontag in the 1970s. Maunsell’s book is highly readable, and, to date, is the best of the biographical writings.

Susan Sontag was a brilliant and original essayist who wanted her reputation to rest on her fiction. She wrote four novels and published a volume of short stories. Of the novels, three of them, including her last, In America (2000), make for poor reading; only the third, The Volcano Lover, an historical romance shaped around the collector and diplomat, William Hamilton, his beautiful young second wife Emma, and Lord Nelson of the Admiralty, displays the fine focus, the sense of continuity and cohesion, and an intense interest in character that marks good fiction. There’s a tragic dimension to the brilliant essayist who wanted to be recognised as a brilliant novelist.

Susan Sontag did not suffer fools gladly, indeed, she did not suffer them at all. She was impatient with slowness, stupidity and those who held opinions which differed from her own. Deification often occurs when an esteemed person dies, when the person enters what Janet Malcolm calls ‘the ranks of the illustrious, unmortifiable dead’. This has not happened in the case of Sontag, perhaps because deification occurred during her life. But now that she can no longer speak for herself (except in the painfully personal diaries – which make her an even easier target to would-be detractors), people are not holding back.

Only the mediocre person is always at their best, as Somerset Maugham self-consciously said. I have recently re-read Sontag’s essays and monographs. I didn’t agree with everything she wrote nor was I bowled over by all her choices of topic, but I was stimulated and invigorated by the originality of her ideas, by the exactitude of her expression, by the breadth of her knowledge. And grateful too: her work remains a rare pleasure.

Oliver Sacks: Anthropologist of Mind.

In recent weeks the neurologist Oliver Sacks announced that he has terminal cancer: multiple metastases in the liver from a rare ocular melanoma he had nine years ago. He is 81. I have admired Sacks as a neurologist and a humanist since I first started to read him thirty years ago. Twenty years ago I wrote an essay about his approach to neurology for the magazine, Island. I have recently revisited that essay, titled Oliver Sacks: Anthropologist of Mind, and I have now posted it in PUBLISHED ESSAYS, in an act of on-going appreciation of a great medical man.

In the twenty years since I wrote the essay, there have been significant and positive changes in the way neurologists approach their work, spear-headed in large part by Sacks himself. In this regard there are snippets of the essay that are – fortunately – out of date. Neurologists today are much kinder, creative and whole-patient focussed than their colleagues of the last century. When it comes to Sacks himself, though, what I wrote back then, and the admiration that prompted the essay, holds true today.

ESCAPE FROM CYBERSPACE

I was born into a print world.

I learned to read at a very young age and I bought my first books while still in primary school. As a university student, in addition to my study books, I read newspapers and periodicals, feminist tracts and political manifestos. I would wander through campus on the way to and from the union gathering flyers as I went. I collected roneoed foolscap sheets advertising rallies in support of the NLF in North Vietnam, demonstrations against apartheid in South Africa, lectures on Existentialism and phenomenology, a Bunuel festival, a sit-in over the slaughter in Uganda, a reclaim-the-night march down St Kilda’s Fitzroy Street. A single trip across campus and I would collect information and activity sufficient to fill a week. I never threw anything out. I worshipped print. Stored in my filing cabinet – yes, I still possess a four-drawer monster – on sheets of fading foolscap I can revisit the left-leaning liberal’s diet of times past.

There has always been too much to read for any voracious reader, but back in the days of print I managed better than most. Through a process of sifting, selecting, and settng aside reading time every day I would read two or three books a week, plus newspapers and periodicals. The situation has now changed. With numerous digital devices and twenty-four hour access to the web, the problem has become one of abundance. There is, simply, too much – and not just to read. There’s too much information, there are too many shops, restaurants, publications to explore, in short, there’s too much of everything all of the time.

I long for an off-switch or a safety overload-switch. But I keep my longings to myself, for to admit to any sort of disenchantment with these information-rich times all too readily casts one as a dinosaur of the pre-virtual world.

Don’t get me wrong, I delight in being able to access a variety of information without moving from my chair. Over coffee with friends, I’m relieved to search out the name of that 1940s Hollywood star that was on the tip of everyone’s tongue. The problem is that it doesn’t stop there. Like the kid in an IRL (in real life) candy shop, it’s so difficult to control yourself when you enter the web. And just like the child keeps piling in the sugar despite feeling sick, the pleasure and delight you initially experience is readily crushed in the frenetic dashing that takes you over. You read an article or a news item, there are two or three links, you follow one, then another, there’s an ad for a miracle face-cream, you peruse the product, don’t buy, search out another product, still don’t buy, check into Facebook, return to original article, follow another link, check your email, investigate another face-cream, back to article, breaking news, return to Facebook, more email. And an hour or a day later little, if any, of the information is remembered because there’s been no time taken to absorb it, and no opportunity to reflect on it.

This is life in cyberspace. And it has consequences.

My favourite Saturday as a child, and well into adulthood too, was one spent with a novel. I would start the book in the morning and have it finished by day’s end. I was so absorbed I had no sense of time or place; indeed, the world about me could pass through all the colours of the rainbow and I would not have noticed. That same deep, focussed attention served me well during my studies, and has continued to serve me well as a novelist. I’ve never experienced any difficulties going to my desk and staying there throughout the many drafts that novels require so they appear as if they fell onto the page fully formed.

Until recently.

My new novel, The Science of Departures (the title is taken from a Mandelstam poem) has a Soviet Russian connection. The idea for this novel emerged about two years ago. Since then I have been reading extensively about Russia through the Soviet years. Most of this reading has occurred via printed books, and includes works by Orlando Figes, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Catriona Kelly, Gary Shteyngart, Masha Gessen, Simon Sebag Montefiore, Nabokov and many others. The books have furnished me with the political and social fabric of Russia during the twentieth century. But when it comes to specifics like the sort of home lighting available in the years just after the revolution, or the location of hospitals and universities in Leningrad during the 1980s, or brands of Russian cigarettes, or daily life in the communal apartments, the Kommunalki, it is the internet with all its arcane and special interests, together with its print and picture archives, that has been astonishingly helpful.

So where is the problem? I have books for depth, I have the web for detail, and I know enough about my characters to bunker down and write the novel. (In that previous sentence I rather fancied the word ‘hunker’ rather than ‘bunker’, but had a suspicion that ‘hunker’ might not be a real word. A few months ago I would have done an on-line search, but today, just moments ago, I took down my tattered OED and looked up ‘hunker’. It is not a word in my 1997 edition. I then flipped the pages back to ‘bunker’ to help me decide whether to use ‘bunker in’ or ‘bunker down’. Consulting my old OED took about one minute. If I had gone on-line, I would still be there, following up interesting titbits offered up by my search engine, but completely irrelevant to the task at hand.)

Yes, I have changed. Rather than mindlessly capitulating to the seductions of the web I am asserting control over my usage.

For a long time I’d been aware that my ability to concentrate on a single task for hours at a time had been compromised by constant web searches, obsessive checking of email, and an unnatural attachment to my mobile phone. Novels, particularly in the early drafts of their creation, require long and deep immersion: without prolonged concentration they will not be completed. My susceptibility to the vast digital world was putting my new novel at risk.

At the same time, my memory, always so reliable, was letting me down. Or, to be more accurate, I was not taking care of it. On the third occasion I looked up the various names given to the Soviet secret police during the 70 years following the revolution, I realised I needed to change my tactics; specifically, I needed to revert to some pre-digital practices.

I found an empty notebook. This became my ‘things/facts that need to be remembered’ book. It was no longer sufficient to do as I had done in times past, that is, take a moment to stick a fact into memory. My memory had been, for too long, mollycoddled by the ever-available information on the web, and it had grown slack and flabby. By writing the information down I was simultaneously taking the time memory needs to open itself up to a fact, and I was doubly rehearsing that fact by committing it to writing.

There still remained the issue of my jittery attention span. This was dealt with in a most unexpected way. It was a Tuesday in mid-July, I was having dinner with my old friend L. L and her family are, like me, Jewish, although they are a good deal more observant than I am. In particular, they observe the Sabbath – Shabbat: from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday theirs is a time of solitary reflection, of prayer, of time spent with family and close friends. For twenty-four hours they do no work, they do no cooking, they do not handle money, they do not drive or take public transport, they use no electronic devices including sound systems, computers and phones.

It’s a day of replenishment, L said to me, and went on to add that she simply did not understand how people managed to start another busy week without a day in which to stop and take stock. To replenish.

As L talked about her Shabbat, her manner and voice became quieter and more reflective, as if demonstrating what this day meant for her and the effects it produced. It was a state foreign to my current life.

I told her how besieged I felt by email. Each day, I said, brings at least twenty new messages most of which I do not want. I trash emails without reading them; I unsubscribe from commercial communications with fury; I think I’ve finished an email thread only to receive another communication. I can end up having daily emails with someone I’ve never met – and would not want to meet. I feel stalked, hounded, battered. I told her about my susceptibility to the web, that even before a session finishes I feel like a rat in a maze. And I wondered aloud whether I might not benefit from my own day partitioned off from the rest of the week – not a religious observance but a day of solitude and reflection: reading in the morning, followed by an afternoon of music and a leisurely walk. A day with no email, no time spent on the computer, no iPad, no mobile.

L stressed that if I chose this path it must not feel like deprivation. She suggested I might begin with just two hours away from my various devices.

This conversation occurred on a Tuesday. As the week progressed I found myself eager for Saturday to arrive.

I checked my email just before midnight on the Friday night. On the Saturday morning I woke at my usual 6 am, made my breakfast and took it back to bed, along with the latest print issue of the London Review of Books and a book on the publication machinations of Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago (The Zhivago Affair by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée). Every few weeks I have breakfast in bed on a Saturday, so this in itself was not unusual. What marked it as different was that my iPad and my mobile were not on the breakfast tray, they were not even in the room. I read for an hour, I had paper and pen next to me to jot down notes and queries. I made a second cup of coffee and returned to bed. I read some more.

Far from feeling deprived, the hours were infused with familiarity. This was exactly how I used to start the weekend in the ancien régime before the digital age.

At mid-morning on that first Saturday I took my digital temperature. I didn’t feel deprived, I didn’t want to check my email, I wasn’t driven to do web searches on issues that had arisen in the course of my reading. So far so good.

I showered, I dressed, I took my dog for a walk. I was at ease. I felt gentled. And as I walked through the park my mind was in a lovely meandering – just like it used to be – moseying off into surprising and fruitful places. On the way home I bought the Saturday Age, and over lunch I read an IRL newspaper and not the on-line version. I read slowly, I finished articles.

That first Saturday afternoon I listened to a Mahler Symphony. I knitted while the music played and my mind continued its leisurely sauntering. Every now and then I put my knitting down, picked up a pen and made a note. Around four o’clock I checked my email. Only one email was waiting for me – which underscores what we all know: that the more you use email the more emails you receive. I checked my email again before going to bed. My inbox was empty.

The next morning I awoke refreshed and, yes, replenished for the day and week ahead.

 

I now observe digital-free Saturdays, this also includes mobile-free Saturdays. I also try to keep the day clear of arrangements. I look forward to my Saturdays, I actually start thinking about each one, planning for it a couple of days ahead.

To anyone who wants to reclaim an interior life, who wants quiet and extended periods of creative reflection, I would recommend you take a digital-free day each week. For those born into the digital age you won’t know yourself, for older people you will recognise a self from long ago, one you’ll welcome back – with relief – as a familiar.