Category Archives: books

THE SIMULTANEOUS TIME ZONES OF LIFE

Recently I was in London. I am familiar with the city, indeed, next to Melbourne, London is the city I know best. I first visited as a 21-year-old and have returned perhaps a dozen times since, sometimes staying just week or two, other times for months.

On that first visit, in 1972, the King’s Road was still the King’s Road, indeed, the sixties, most of which I’d been too young to explore fully, were still very apparent in clothes, in music, in a loud fuck-you attitude to traditional institutions, in a ‘new left’ that still had a presence. Of course, within a couple of years, the prevailing belief of the 1960s that the personal was political would metamorphose into the personal growth and development movement. Indeed, by 1975, politics had almost entirely disappeared, and what Tom Wolfe termed the ‘Me Decade’ was in full swing. Instead of storming the barricades of the past and of privilege, ‘realising one’s potential’, ‘finding the real me’, ‘remodelling the self’ had become the raison d’être of a meaningful life. This trend was described as ‘the new alchemical dream’ and the ‘sweetest and vainest of pastimes’ by Tom Wolfe in his essay ‘The Me Decade’ – which still reads well, more than forty years on.

I lived in London for several months that first time. The plan had actually been to stay indefinitely, but a boyfriend in Melbourne and a lack of confidence in my own capacities brought me home within a year. But still I managed to cover a lot of ground. I walked the streets of London, I walked for hours, for days, and I walked alone. And I read. I read the existentialists finding a vocabulary for my own angst, I read books on the sociology of alienation, I read the soul-breakers of poetry, Baudelaire and Rimbaud (my brothers, my brothers) and I read Virago’s recently discovered feminists as well as George Eliot and Edith Wharton and many others.

It was a very solitary time. There was no one to disturb my reverie and no one on whom to test my thoughts. As I walked the London streets, my mind was alive: to the books I was reading, the people and scenes around me, as well as memories, longings and imaginings. It all mingled together, hard to separate the facts from fiction and both from desire. Not that I minded, I was never lonely in a George Eliot novel, I was never clumsy or misunderstood when a part of alienated youth, I was never shy or reticent in my imaginings.

On my latest trip, unlike the several that had preceded it, impressions from my first visit to London surfaced with particular vividness. In fact, there were times when I felt as if I were simultaneously living in different time zones, that now was also then, and, given my awareness and knowledge of this experience, much of the time in between. There were two factors that marked this trip as different: the first was a book – Julian Barnes’s first novel, Metroland – the second, an exhibition about the 1960s that was showing at the V&A.

Back in the old days before e-books and electronic readers, books would take up a good portion of my suitcase when I travelled. While I will always prefer reading a paper book to a screen, these days I travel with my iPad loaded up with both new and old titles (I never leave home, for example, without the complete works of Jane Austen), I travel with the equivalent of several suitcases of weightless books. But I was in London and staying around the corner from Daunts, and I simply could not resist.

For booklovers who don’t know Daunt Books in Marylebone put it on your list if you aredaunt-books-marylebone-high-st-london going to London. In the meantime, visit the Daunt Books website and take the virtual tour through this lovely Edwardian bookshop (make sure to check out all three floors). I found an essay by Brodsky on Venice that I’d not known about before, and a fat family memoir by Mary-Kay Wilmers, the editor of the LRB; I picked up a new Justin Cartwright, Lionheart, and Julian Barnes’s first novel, one of the few books of his I’d not read.

From the first page of Metroland, indeed, the first sentence I was hooked. ‘There is no rule against carrying binoculars in the National Gallery’ the novel begins. How could I not continue? Is there a rule about using binoculars, I wondered. And plunged ahead.

Metroland comes in a lovely edition, a ‘special archive edition’ according to the publishers (Vintage). It’s a paperback with folding flaps and a repeating graphic of stylized suburban houses on front and back, and inside both covers there’s a similar repeating graphic in a hot orange.

metroland-cover

 

 

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The book begins in 1963 in Metroland, that area of London served by the Metropolitan line, when the narrator, Christopher, and his best friend Toni are 16 years old. Christopher and Toni are intellectuals, they’ve read books their fellow students have never even heard of, they pepper their conversation with French and they fancy themselves as modern-day flâneurs. And they assume that distanced, critical, somewhat superior stance of alienated youth. They are adamantly not of Metroland and will escape as soon as they can. The book is laugh-aloud funny at times, it is also very knowing.

For almost half the book the narrative stays with the boys in Metroland before shifting, along with Christopher, to Paris in 1968 – yes, that pivotal year, although unfortunately the upheavals (or, as Christopher refers to them in meaningful italics, les événements) seem to have passed him by. In the third section of the book the narrative shifts back to Metroland. Now it is 1977 and Christopher is a husband and father; he is far wiser and far happier (with neither shame not embarrassment) than his younger self.

I was captivated by the entire book, but it was the first section, the youth section, that had the major impact. I recognised those boys, not in every respect and certainly not in their fixation on sex, but in their reading and other intellectual pursuits and their sense of being different from their peers. (I wonder if all intellectual children of the second half of the 1900s gravitated to the same books.) Because there were two of them, they managed to legitimate the other and they often made light and merry of their difference. In my own case, I too met a like-minded girl in early adolescence. It’s much harder if you are alone. So I was infusing Metroland with my own experience, or Metroland was infusing my memories and I read and read and did not want the book to finish.

During this time I visited the 1960s exhibition at the V&A. The clothes, the bands, the books, the films and TV, the posters and badges, the personalities, how very familiar they all were. Best of all was a large room where a movie of Woodstock was playing, huge images covering the walls and cushions cast across the floor, and there I sat rocking along to the familiar music, gazing at those lovely familiar figures.

This entire exhibition was a banquet in identifying with the familiar. As I wandered the exhibition, I saw that most of the other on-lookers were around my age, and I saw the smiles on their faces, the pleasure of recognition, as they peered at the exhibits. I wasn’t the only one enjoying this trip to the past.

But was it the past? I was in the now, I was in the present. What I was recalling did not make me forget where I was, the pull of the past did not obliterate the present. Indeed, it was the past coming into the present, like red wine into water, a lovely mingling that softened and pleasured the present. (This is quite opposed to nostalgia, a deluded state that has you longing for a lost past.) This past was enriching the present, and the present was making more sense of the past. Simultaneous and merging time zones, I decided.

Often when explaining memory, metaphors from archaeology are evoked. So, for example, we read of the strata of time, the bedrock of events. These particular metaphorical associations are romantic in a nineteenth century type of way, but they are not accurate. The memories that burst upon us do so in a single moment, they are not sequential; simultaneously they operate together with one another and with current events. There’s nothing linear or strata’d about it.

Our sense of time is that it flows inexorably forward while now, this moment, does not. Now, this moment, if you could only hold on to it, is stationary. Now is what we experience. But for it to become experience, something reflected on, something that can be drawn upon in the future, it is no longer now, but rather it becomes part of our stock of knowledge (surely, an aspect of memory), a sort of personal and portable library.

I was learning more about the past, more about now with the sixties of Metroland, the V&A exhibition, and I actually made my way down to King’s Road, the first time in years. The days passed as if inside a movie. Movies, like novels, toy with time, years can pass in a few pages, or from one scene to the next. We might see in a flick of hair or perhaps a facial grimace alerting us that a character has remembered something, in a novel we can actually know the character’s thoughts. We are of this time and we are of all our time. Each memory affects many that have gone before and will itself be affected by many that come afterwards. And all those memories are still active as we make our way through the often tumultuous currents of today.

Risky Reading

My greatest and reliable pleasures have been found in the pages of books. From the beginning this has been the case. In the crowded confines of the family if I was reading I was left alone. For my mother, I was one less child to worry about; while for me, with a book in hand, I gained respite from the demands of family life and escape into lives so much more interesting than my own.

Novels provided me with an entrée into the desires and disappointments, the loves and resentments, the thoughts and actions of country parsons, well-born but impoverished girls, low-born but inspiring urchins. Through fiction I came to know military men, peasants, unhappily married women, demanding men; I learned of Russians and French people, English and Americans, Spanish, Italians and long-dead Australians.

Through the decades, my love affair with reading has faltered only once: when the fleeting delights and mind-dumbing seductions of the digital world altered the way my mind worked to such an extent that prolonged immersion in a book became increasing difficult. This was the impetus for my National Library of Australia Ray Mathews Lecture (posted on this site).

If a good book affords great pleasure and gratitude, what then for a disappointing one? With so many riches on offer – both new and those favourites to which one returns – I see little point in continuing with a book that it is not rewarding. Similarly with a play or film that has failed to grab me. Mind and memory need exercise, but at the same time there’s only so much you can take in and you need to select with care.

Sometimes there is no choice. Recently I reviewed a book that did not live up to expectation. If not for having to write the review I would have closed the book after a couple of chapters, deeply disappointed but pleased I’d made the decision not to waste more time. Instead I had to read through to the end, increasingly angry and resentful, like a lover trapped in an affair that has soured.

And it occurs to me that an about-to-be-read book is exactly like those tantalising moments when you meet someone and feel a spark. There’s a bubbling excitement over the possibility, of the yet not-known but desired. And you are confronted with risk: to plunge or to step back. The reader is the lover who plunges. A one-night stand? A long weekend? A lifetime? The reader is the lover whose pleasures are huge and whose disappointments are cataclysmic. But who would want to live any other way?

gottliebI have just finished reading Robert Gottlieb’s wonderful memoir, Avid Reader (FSG, 2016). Gottlieb, the renowned editor (Simon & Schuster, Knopf The New Yorker), writer, serial collector of all manner of things, and dance – ballet – aficionado has been a great reader all his life. His love for and appreciation of books and writing runs through this memoir. Gottlieb shares his love so generously that I experienced a strong sense of gratitude as I turned his pages. To meet someone over a mutual love, and to meet in that extraordinary intimacy of reading, there is little to compare. Gottlieb’s book is the perfect long weekend.

BOB DYLAN – NOBEL LAUREATE

The choice of Nobel laureates for literature falls into three main categories:

  1. justly deserved;
  2. surely there were others more deserving, and
  3. incomprehensible and/or bizarre.

Glancing down the list from 2016 back to the first winner, Sully Prudhomme from France – a writer who has certainly not withstood the weathering of time – I would include In the first category: Doris Lessing (2007), J.M. Coetzee (2003) Szymborska (1996), Derek Walcott (1992), Nadine Gordimer (1991) Joseph Brodsky (1987), Milosz (1980), Saul Bellow (1976), Patrick White (1973), Neruda (1971), Pasternak (1958), T.S. Eliot (1948), Thomas Mann (1929), Yeats (1923), to name just a few. Indeed, the Nobel Committee gets it right, or close to right, surprisingly often.

Taste is a major factor in the second category. I am not drawn to the work of Hemingway (1954), Alice Munro (2013) and V.S. Naipaul (2001) but many readers are. As for the third category, Pearl Buck has become representative of those who were chosen to the astonishment of all but the committee. But she is far from being alone in this third group.

Many of the winning writers have been politically active both on the page and off. Alfred Nobel stated that the prize would be given to an author who has produced ‘in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction’ (emphasis added). This requirement might help explain that small group of winners like Winston Churchill (1953), Bertrand Russell (1950) and possibly Jean-Paul Sartre (1964) who actually declined the prize, writers who warrant praise for so much of their work, but not, it seems to me, for any literature that flowed from their pen. Winners like Churchill and Russell have excited heated controversy. Indeed, over the 100+ years of the prize controversy has been a major player. And no more so with the choice of Bob Dylan for the 2016 Laureate.

I think Dylan is an inspired choice.

By anyone’s estimation I would be considered a serious reader. Many of the Nobel winners figure among my favourites: Mann, Eliot, Yeats, Russell (yes, although I would not have given him the prize), Camus, Gide, Neruda, Patrick White, Eugenio Montale, Saul Bellow, the utterly essential Milosz, Joseph Brodsky, Gordimer, Szymborska, Coetzee, Doris Lessing. I’ve read Proust, my comfort reading is Jane Austen, I belong to a small group that discusses a different Shakespeare play every month. I read widely in contemporary fiction, and I always have a volume of non-fiction and another of poetry on the go. People have been surprised that a serious literary person like me would celebrate the awarding of the world’s premier literary prize to a singer-songwriter.

Dylan is not a great poet and he’s not the greatest lyricist who ever lived – of the moderns that prize might possibly go to Col Porter – but I do think he was deserving of the Nobel.

The selection committee chose Dylan ‘for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.’ This is a restrained, vague even coy citation, I’m not even sure I know what it means. ‘New poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’ is ambiguous, and one of the interpretations is a contradiction. But leaving that aside, I think the Committee’s citation is off the mark.

Dylan was the voice of a generation. Even more than this, he provided the words to a generation wanting to break with tradition, with the past, with political leaders, with parents. This was a generation growing to adulthood under the threat of nuclear destruction, in a world where the separation between rich and poor was widening, where unions (at least in the USA) were weakening, and workers were being squeezed. Dylan burst on the scene in the 1960s and for the next decade or two his songs expressed what the alienated youth of the time were feeling. He was anti-war and anti-nuclear weapons, he protested injustice, he sang for the worker, the immigrant and the poor.

Dylan’s songs were anthems for the time. ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’ (1963-4), ‘Masters of War’ (1963), ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ (1962), ‘I Am a Lonesome Hobo’ (1968), ‘I Pity the Poor Immigrant’ (1968). Dylan expressed uncomfortable truths, and he gave direction for those who no longer trusted the old leaders.

As a teenager I would sit around with friends and we would sing Dylan songs. This was not an occasional happening. Most weeks, a group of kids would descend on our house, and accompanied by guitars and bongos and occasionally the piano we would sing – folk songs, Pete Seeger, what were known in those days as Negro Spirituals (I don’t know what the politically correct term is these days), Peter Paul and Mary (who often sang Dylan), and the master himself.

Dylan’s songs introduced us to people, places, politics and events far beyond suburban, middle-class Melbourne. And they taught us not to take things on faith or trust. They taught us to question authority, tradition and traditional institutions like the church, the family, the military.

And Dylan’s songs also taught about love – not in a gauzy, dewy-eyed way like most of the offerings on the Top 40, but honestly. A half a century on ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’ remains one of the most brutally honest songs about love.

You say you’re lookin’ for someone
Never weak but always strong
To protect you an’ defend you
Whether you are right or wrong
Someone to open each and every door
But it ain’t me, babe
No, no,. no, it ain’t me, babe
It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for babe

(It Ain’t Me, Babe, 1964)

Some have criticised the choice of Dylan because, they say, the lyrics cannot be separated from the music. But they can, they have a different effect, a different power when read as poetry rather than song lyrics with the music playing in your mind. The best analogy is reading a Shakespeare play as against seeing it performed. No one suggests that the plays of Shakespeare are any less worthy on the page rather than the stage. And I think the same goes for Dylan.

Others have criticised the choice of Dylan, not because he is a songwriter, but rather he was the wrong songwriter to receive the prize. These people say that Leonard Cohen should have been the candidate.

I am a lifelong fan of the work of both Cohen and Dylan, but for the politics and the history, for the courage and uncompromising gaze, for the breadth of material Dylan is my choice. This is not to suggest that all his lyrics are breathtakingly good, there are some that are shoddy and banal. But as Somerset Maugham wisely noted: only the mediocre man is always at his best.

And there are those who insist that song-writing is not poetry, in the same way that in the early days of film there were those who insisted that film was not legitimate performance like theatre. There are poets who find their calling through pop songs – Dorothy Porter was one such poet – who see the modern song-writer within the context of poetry’s fluid boundaries. The conjoining of music and poetry is an ancient coupling, witness the minstrels of old wandering from village to village in days long gone.

Are there other writers more deserving of the prize? My reading is very much in the European and English-speaking traditions, so I can’t speak for African and Asian writers. I hope one day the Polish-American poet Adam Zagajewski gets a gong; I think it was inexcusable that the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (died 2001) was never selected. But in the choice of Bob Dylan for the 2016 Nobel Laureate for Literature, I am surprised that the committee was willing to take such a risk, but very pleased they did.

The Passions of Alberto Manguel

Passions require time: time to develop in the first place, time to be expanded, time to be enjoyed. Passions, like any experience/activity that requires prolonged attention and an active imagination, can be tripped up even before they’ve found their legs in our contemporary fast-paced world. It is fortunate then, that the pleasures of passionate engagement whether with music, reading, maths, theatre, people or just being alive are such that even a short exposure is generally enough to hold a person for a life-time.

There have always been people who appear to inhabit lives of uniform colour and temperature, who can walk a glacier or climb a mountain and be occupied, not by the magnificence surrounding them, but their growling muscles. There have always been people who hear Bach or read Dickinson and complain of boredom, or see a flamboyant parrot or a scampering lyrebird and remain unmoved.

And there have always been people who inhabit the world as if on alert. Nature, art, people, so many experiences elicit from these people responses that are invariably high-octane. These are exciting people to be with, their enthusiasm rubs off, you feel more alive, more geared to possibility when you are with them.

There are friends who belong in the passionate category, and there are authors too. I have thrived in the company of Iris Murdoch, Virginia Woolf, Oliver Sacks, Walt Whitman, and many others. I’m excited when there’s a new book from, say, John Banville, Ann Patchett or Justin Cartwright. And even if their latest is not among their best I still enjoy moments walking the high peaks with them.

Alberto Manguel is one such writer. Recently I reviewed his latest book Curiosity. Even if I had not known his work, the title would have lured me in. Below is the review, published in Australian Book Review, September, 2015.

 

CURIOSITY by Alberto Manguel.
Yale University Press, $44.95 hb, 377pp, 9780300184785

There are two broad approaches to reading Alberto Manguel’s, Curiosity. The first type of reader will study the book – or rather, the text – assiduously connecting the personal narratives that introduce each chapter with the books Manguel references in the more theoretical and discursive aspects that follow. Dante’s Commedia is a constant presence in Curiosity, so they will have their Dante in easy reach for ready consultation, and they will strive to connect Dante’s journey with Manguel’s chapter titles, all of them questions: ‘How Do We Reason?’ (Ch. 3), ‘What Is Language?’ (Ch. 6), ‘What Is an Animal?’ (Ch. 11), ‘What Comes Next?’ (Ch. 15). They will make notes as they read, in an attempt to harness the voluminous material. And they will keep a separate list of the surprisingly numerous literary references that are unknown to them. This type of reader will try to get on top of the material, bring it to heel, master it.

The second type of reader will plunge in. They will not feel the ground beneath them, rather they’ll be swept up in Manguel’s narrative. As Virgil guides Dante, and Dante Guides Manguel, so Manguel guides this type of reader. It is an unpredictable journey. In the first chapter alone, ‘What Is Curiosity?’, Manguel saunters from Dante to Thomas Aquinas; he makes a quick digression to Augustine and Aristotle before slipping past Dante to David Hume and Diderot and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, Diderot’s co-editor of the Encyclopédie (I had always thought Diderot did the job alone); there are nods to Boccaccio, Isaiah Berlin, Seneca, Socrates, and several others like Covarrubias (a Spanish lexographer who wrote an etymological dictionary in 1611), previously unknown to this reader. This is a journey without an itinerary. A risky odyssey, it is impossible to anticipate where Manguel is heading. But this second type of reader, trusting that Manguel knows what he is doing, goes with the current. These readers are so immersed in Manguel’s wanderings, they might be in a trance as they read – this book is their entire reality – they’re prickling with awareness, in a world bathed in a golden, if sometimes opaque light. These readers are guided by Manguel but, at the same time, they are nudged along by books they’ve read themselves, experiences they’ve had, and thoughts and ideas that surface without warning.

The first type of reader seeks control of the material, the second, although no less hungry for understanding, can tolerate the mystery of the not-yet-known (and perhaps never to be fully known) and the uncertainties of an intellectual quest without a plot.

The capaciousness of Manguel’s curiosity, his voracious reading, and his eagerness to share both with his readers are simultaneously wonderful and daunting. This is old news to those familiar with Manguel’s earlier work. With an author who can leap from the mid-thirteenth century Spanish scholar Abraham Abulafia to Borges in a single paragraph, any attempt to control the material is, I believe, counter-productive. Too much in the way of analysis somehow annuls the meaning and sense of understanding that arises from this material. Trust Manguel: in The City of Words, A Reading Diary, A History of Reading and A Reader on Reading*, he has proved to be not simply a reliable guide, but the best there is outside Dante’s first circle of Hell.

Manguel, driven by his own ravening curiosity, ranges here, there and everywhere in Curiosity, so it is somewhat amusing that he adheres to a strict format in the structure of his latest book. It is comprised of seventeen chapters, each titled with a question, and each beginning with a full page illustration depicting a woodcut from the 1487 printing of the Commedia (with commentary by Cristoforo Landino). I am wedded to Doré’s illustrations to Dante, their detail and lyricism form a perfect duet with the poem. These fifteenth century woodcuts do not speak to me in the same way; they simply do not – to me – depict the terrible horrors that are related in the Inferno, nor the sublime joys of Paradiso. I am curious as to why Manguel chose them over Doré’s plates. Sometimes the connection between the particular canto from the Commedia and the chapter question is obvious, sometimes it becomes clear by the end of the chapter, and on other occasions a second or third reading will be required. Understandings surface when one reads Manguel.

The text of each chapter begins with a page or two of personal material: a happening from Manguel’s childhood, a recent illness, sexual discrimination in his childhood books (Anne of Green Gables for girls, The Coral Island for boys), Argentina’s dirty war, the economic crisis in Argentina in 2006, concern over the environment, animals, injustice in the world. Following the personal snippet are approximately ten pages during which Manguel wanders through art and literature gathering material that enhances and elaborates on the chapter question. The dynamic is reminiscent of musical improvisation.

Questions, as Manguel makes clear, are far more saturated with meaning than answers. Curiosity is short on answers. What it has are intellectual explorations triggered by all the crucial questions that comprise the human project; indeed, most of the chapter questions have inspired entire schools of philosophy. No précis nor synopsis would do this book justice. Suffice it to say that for readers of Manguel, his favourites are here – Montaigne, Plato, Alice, Don Quixote – and his customary concerns: how we make sense of the world, how we can understand one another. There are many delights. In the chapter ‘What Are We Doing Here?’, Manguel reveals Dante as an environmentalist (with a touch of Paganism) and the Commedia as an environmentalist tract. And surprising thoughts. After reading his account of Nimrod and the building of the Tower of Babel, atheist that I am, I found myself thinking that God made a big mistake, that he should have found a different punishment for the people’s heresy, anything but the confounding of language and meaning. How much more difficult it would be for hatred, prejudice, brutality and corruption to occur if we shared a common language.

The last two chapters of Curiosity, ‘Why Do Things Happen?’ and ‘What Is True?’ represent, at least to me, Manguel’s narrative assent into paradise. As I closed the book, I felt a little as Dante did when brought into the presence of his Beatrice.

 

*Reviewed by AG in ABR, May 2010.

 

 

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

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.

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.