Category Archives: Imagination

Hectic Reading. Starting all over again (3)

HECTIC READING. STARTING ALL OVER AGAIN (3)

It’s happening again: I’m reading hectically. I’m filling up. Little in the way of rhyme or reason at this stage, just following the imagination’s peccadilloes. I finish a book and within minutes I’m reaching for a new one. Every few days I stop long enough to write notes, prompted by my jottings in the back of each book and the wanderings of a mind set free. The jottings and the notes sometimes bear no relation to anything that has gone before, but more often they feed the new novel that is slowing forming, or, not so much the novel as a whole, but the characters who will carry the story.

Here are the current volumes.

  1. Deborah Levy. The Man Who Saw Everything. I’m reading this book because of Ann Patchett’s new novel, The Dutch House. I went to Readings Bookstore in Carlton to buy the Patchett, and there, in the new releases was Deborah Levy’s new one, a novel that traverses the 1980s to the present day, character-based and ideas-driven, and written in Levy’s lucid rich prose. I am 1/3 the way through and Levy’s characters are provoking some surprising thoughts about my own very different characters. (Incidentally, Patchett has returned to form with The Dutch House. Such a subtle, yet intricate portrayal of family relations.)

  1. David Biale. Gershom Scholem. Master of the Kabbalah. Mention of this book was made in a recent article in the NYRB. It occurred to me that while Scholem’s name was very familiar to me, I knew nothing about him, nor the Kabbalah. Biale’s book is part of the excellent Yale Jewish Lives Series – a recommendation in itself.

Jewishness in any of its manifestations is not a theme in my new novel, but suddenly it seemed essential, and urgent, too, that I learn about Scholem. I read the book over two days. Scholem was a great scholar and there are some wonderful quotes in Biale’s book about the power of writing, of language, of story. One quote from Goethe’s Faust particularly struck: ‘Parchment – is that the secret fount/ from which you drink, to still your thirst forever?’ And from Scholem himself: ‘the desiccation of the language has dried out our hearts.’

One of the characters in my new novel, Adrian, is grappling with the problems of meaning, and, in particular, the nature of meaning without language. I put my books aside and listen to Mahler’s ‘Das Lied von der Erde’, a piece of music that has a profound effect on Adrian early on in the new novel, an effect that, wordman as he is, he simply does not understand. I let the music lift me out of the quotidian into the imagination’s swirl. The music plays, the voice lures, and I travel without will, without any monitoring whatsoever, through memory, musings, ideas, images that are not in the least essayist, but more like a Kandinsky painting.

 

  1. Wassily Kandinsky. Concerning the Spiritual in Art

In this book, Kandinsky explains his theory and understanding of art, music, and the numinous. In the years 1911-1914, Kandinsky produced a number of large lyrical paintings. I’ve always loved these paintings, but it was only this past November, when I saw some of them again at Munich’s Lenbachhaus, that I realised the connection these paintings have to music and, more generally to a meaning that seems to circumvent language (Rothko’s work has the same effect). As I read Kandinsky’s book – it’s a slender book, but it demands a careful reading – some of the struggles and insights that beset my character, Adrian, sharpen and, at the same time, acquire a firmer foundation. Rather than the usual fragments that characterise this early stage of a novel, I actually reach for a proper notebook and write several pages.

 

  1. While I was in Germany I read Marjorie Perloff’s Edge of Ironyin which she, like others before her, visits the Hungarian intellectuals of the mid-twentieth century, an extraordinary group that included the mathematician John von Neuman, Arthur Koestler and Robert Capa, my favourite physicist Leo Szilard, and Elias Canetti – although Canetti could be said to have come from several places including Bulgaria and Vienna. Anyway Canetti was mentioned by Perloff, and I realised I had not read his three-volume autobiography. I’d always assumed I had, it being one of the books I OUGHT to have read.

I’ve read the first volume now, The Tongue Set Free, and am 2/3 the way through the second volume, The Torch in My Ear,the volume that charts his late teens through his twenties.

Books find you at the right time, and this is clearly my time for the Canetti autobiography. This morning I read a section in which Canetti may or may not be in love with a Russian chemist, Eva, who works in the same laboratory as he does. I think of the ramifications of not knowingif you love someone, and I’m not thinking of Canetti and the Russian chemist, I’m thinking of another of my characters, Claire, caught in a marriage that she regards as deep and meaningful and everyone else sees as cruel and destructive. I make some jottings and read on. Several pages later, Canetti writes of a specific type of hearing, a rare type of hearing that ‘was impossible unless you exclude your own feelings.’ My character Claire thinks about the common intrusion of this ‘I’. What people usually hear is first sieved through a mesh of their own desires and disappointments. And Claire starts to wonder about her own husband, what actually drives him in his relationship with her. I reach for the notebook.

 

  1. And poetry. I’m still dipping into Ted Hughes’ Crow— my character Adrian is an expert on death – and I’m about to pull down Goethe’s Prometheusfrom the shelf (it was mentioned in the Canetti autobiography), and I’ve not long finished The Death of Empedocles, both Hölderin’s and Matthew Arnold’s versions.

So this is just the current reading. If I glance down my lists for the last months of 2019 there are a lot of books, and very diverse. And what emerges from all this reading? An imagination that is ranging far and wide (definitely without a roadmap), new thoughts, new ideas, nascent characters who are gaining in flesh and sensibility, interesting scenes and curious events (most of which won’t survive the first draft), and three roughish chapters.

And so it goes. At the end of it all one hopes there’ll be a new novel. Ihope there will be. But it couldn’t happen without reading. Indeed,lifecouldn’t happen without reading.

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Thoughts on Travelling and Fiction

I have been to Paris, Amsterdam, Venice, Berlin, and a dozen other European cities. I’ve driven through Britain and Ireland, I’ve traversed America and Canada and South America. I’ve seen lions and leopards and other exotic creatures in Botswana and Tanzania; I’ve witnessed erupting volcanoes in Hawaii and New Zealand. I feel at home on the Upper West Side of New York City, and I enjoy a comfortable familiarity with London. Of all the earth’s territories, only Asia is missing on my travel map: I don’t like the heat and, more particularly, heat does not like me. I console myself that I can’t do it all.

I am particularly drawn to cold wilderness landscapes. I have been to Antarctica, Patagonia, Lapland and Iceland. I have trudged through snow-filled environments at -25 degrees Celsius, and have sped through snowy forests and across frozen lakes with my own dog-sled team. In Iceland, I walked across a white isolated undulating plain, surrounded on all sides by low mountains, the smooth crunchy snow unmarked by human or animal; and later on that trip, I stood on a beach covered in fresh snow, the grey stormy Atlantic raging in front of me, and a strip of startling black sand where the waves had washed the snow away. I have walked alone in the silent, shadowless environment of a mid-winter Lapland day feeling an extraordinary peace in that strange, soft-edged land.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I went to Antarctica, it occurred to me that if there were to be a physical landscape that represented the imagination it would be this place. Borderless, untouched, silent, monochrome, with towering mountains and broad sinuous glaciers, its seas covered with sheets of ice and huge icebergs the size of a city blocks.

I have stepped inside the imagination, I thought, over and over again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fiction and travelling are very similar. Both are a journeying into the unknown. Both require curiosity and courage, and both, if they are to be fully explored, require an active imagination. When travelling, you can join a tour or follow a guidebook, or you can wander – at will or whim – entering the current of a place, trusting in yourself even though all is strange and new. But it is precisely because you are in a new and strange place that you are willing to take a risk, for who knows what you will find and what you will see, and how it might change you.

And opening a new novel: you might begin with a vague notion of the story, but basically you enter the narrative, trusting that the author has done the necessary work for your fictional journey. You plunge in without knowing where you are going, but hoping at the end of reading, you’ll be moved and changed by the experience.

The comparison with travelling is equallly relevant when writing a novel. You start the project with a stack of blank pages and a head full of possibility. And you’re nervous too, just like the nerves as you board the plane. You’re heading into the unknown, you’re fearful that the journey might prove just too hard, you can’t conceive of your destination much less being confident that you’ll achieve it. But just with journeying in the real world, you have to trust, and you must have courage, and if things go wrong, if you take the wrong path, even enter the wrong country, you’ll imagine what might have been and you’ll change direction. And if you find yourself again in the wrong place, again you will imagine other possibilities and try another way.

Fiction and travel: I love them both. The one feeds the other, the one inflates and illuminates the other, and both of them are testimony to the power, the pleasure and the pitfalls too of that essential and unique quality of being human, namely, the imagination.

Next stop for me: Shetland.
And the next novel: it has begun…

For those of you in Melbourne, the Writers’ Festival has begun. Shaped around the theme of love there are some very seductive sessions. I am involved in 3 sessions, including an in-conversation with Marieke Hardy – Festival director and very fine friend – Saturday September 7, 10am. I suggest you go to the MWF website and check out the program. It really is a beauty.

 

 

 

Times Past, Times Present.

My last visit to London was a couple of years ago, the January that Trump was inaugurated. I was visiting alone, and with work behind me in Melbourne and more work ahead of me in Berlin, my stay in London was to be a holiday. Rather than my usual rental in Bloomsbury, I borrowed the flat of a friend. It was located in Marylebone, south of Baker Street and a short distance from Wigmore Hall. My friend had briefed me about the area: the cheese shop, the wine shop, Daunt Books in the high Street, and the weekend market in a carpark at which, she said, she had once seen the writer, Julian Barnes, shopping for vegetables.

The day after I arrived, rather than explore the local area, I went to the RA. It was the last day of an abstract expressionist exhibition, the central exhibit, at least to my Australian eyes, being Jackson Pollock’s stunning Blue Poles. Afterwards, filled with that pleasant, lightly exhilarated feeling one gets with the best of art, I popped across the road to Hatchards.

It still felt like the old Hatchards, or rather, it did not feel like another Waterstones, and I browsed happily, and at my leisure. I ended up buying a memoir by a woman about her sister’s suicide – I thought my interest in death books might have dwindled, but even now, ten years after D’s death, it still hasn’t; I indulged in a little fun book calledI Wandered Lonely as a Cloud…and other poems you half-remember from school; and lastly, I bought a new Vintage edition of Julian Barnes’s Metroland, his first novel and one I’d not previously been aware of. (Would I have bought this book if not already oriented in Barnes’s direction by my friend’s mention of him? I think not, although when I purchased the book I don’t believe I made the connection.)

It was a beautiful edition, a ‘special archive edition’, with a repeated graphic of a small cluster of suburban homes front and back in orange and magenta, folded flaps for the blurb and author bio, and illustrated end pages decorated with another repeated graphic, this one in orange and grey and also of houses but with the addition of the Eiffel Tower, so you know these are Parisian houses and not the London suburbs of the front and back covers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A lovely edition, although less lovely to read – nothing to do with the print or the layout, but rather the spine was reinforced with steel-like glue. There was no bending this spine, no possibility of hands-free reading, the book lying independently on a table while I sipped my coffee or ate my breakfast or made the occasional jotting or just stretched my arms or shifted my position without missing a reading beat. The spine needed the strength of a weight-lifter to keep the book open.

This not withstanding, I was hooked from the very first page, indeed, by the very first line: There is no rule against carrying binoculars in the National Gallery.It was the word ‘carrying’ that particularly pleased; it contained so much more narrative possibility than the more prosaic ‘using’.

The novel is structured in three sections, with Chris the first-person narrator throughout. The first and longest section enters the world of Chris and his best friend Toni in 1963. Chris and Toni are all-knowing, all-critical, 16-year-old intellectuals. They are steeped in French writers, they assume an air of superior alienation and ennui, they deride parents, school and, above all, life in Metroland, that area of London served by the Metropolitan tube line. They look forward to the day when they are free to escape and enter LIFE PROPER.

How familiar I found this attitude, although in my case it came equipped with far less confidence and less superiority than that revealed by Chris and Toni. How familiar, even though it happened a half a century ago in the late 1960s, on the other side of the world, and at a time of life I preferred to forget. (I never really got the hang of childhood or adolescence, would have done better to begin life at 30.) Back in those long-ago days, I was reading the same French books as were Chris and Toni, and I was writing angst-laden poetry about not being understood, and in the same way that Chris and Tony dreamed of escaping Metroland, I dreamed of escaping suburban, far-from-everything Melbourne. London was the location of my LIFE PROPER. Already steeped in the Bloomsbury writers and artists, I would live a short walk from the BM – I, too, rejected the Metropolitan line without even knowing it – and I would write books. (My first published story was titled ‘If Patrick White Married Virginia Woolf’ in which a misunderstood Australian girl imagines the perfect life: PW married to VW, living and working in London along with their children, an Australian-born girl and Hurtle Duffield from White’s The Vivisector. Clearly I’d made the not-particularly-large leap from angst-filled poetry to hope-filled, biographically-stifled fiction.)

But back to the present. I am living in an area of London that may or may not be associated with Barnes, reading his first novel, I’mburiedin his book, in the longings of his young characters that match my own long-ago longings (perhaps the same longings experienced by all bright children), longings that reappear to me exactly as they once were, untouched by time or experience. And then, unbidden, I find myself, in the whirl of my own early escape to London, that first impoverished visit of wonders, that at-last-I-can-start-life sense of boundlessness and fear. I haven’t moved. I’m still sitting in my friend’s flat in Marylebone, reading Metroland, Julian Barnes first novel, I am in the mire of my 16-year-old self’s longings, and I am alone in London as a 21-year-old. And all this is happening simultaneously.

It’s like being in a three-dimensional Blue Poles, or better still, a three-dimensional Rothko (his is such a deep imagination), or inside a Mahler symphony. Linear time and linear space have been demolished by limitless imagination. Times past, times present and times future all mixing and mingling at the same time.

It was a fevered, fantastic experience, and while not the first time it has happened to me, there was a particular intensity on this occasion. Good fiction, the fictions that seduce and hold until the last page, invariably illuminate your lived experience. As I read Barnes’s Metroland,and relived times past, and also idly wondered if I might see Barnes himself at the Farmers’ Market the following weekend, there were swervings and touches and connections occurring in the imagination, enriching that vital swirl just beneath consciousness. And some time in the future, while occupied with the mundane business of life, doing the washing, walking an aisle in the supermarket, I will be aware of sparks and curiosities that emerge from that rich swirl, that shape into possibilities that firm into ideas and understandings. Standing in front of the oils and vinegars, I will be astonished and delighted by this wonder that is the imagination: the fuel of the LIFE PROPER.

 

Me, You and Us: the Problem with Memoir.

We are suffocating in memoir. Titles clog the bookshop shelves: My Life, Living with Cancer, My Abusive Mother, Poor Little Rich Girl, Poor Little Rich Boy, Skating on Thin Ice, Running a Marathon, Starving for Love, Living Black, Living under Cover.

The list goes on. And every month there’s another avalanche. Of course, in the rubble there are some gems, memoirs that reach out to a reader, that are about much more than Me Me Me, memoirs with ideas and reflections that stretch beyond the events of a single individual’s life. But unless you already know the author – Oliver Sacks, for example, or Jenny Diski, or Robert Gottlieb (his Avid Readeris a gift to all writers and readers) – it can be hard to find the good amongst the dross.

There’s a mistaken belief that memoirs are true, but when someone writes a memoir they select from life and they select from memory. It is not the whole story, it is not even an accurate portrayal of part of it. When people write a memoir they do so for one or more of many possible reasons, and those reasons shape what goes into the memoir. Of course a memoir does not reveal the truth, the full truth, the only truth.

Then there are the fictionedmemoirs, like Siri Hustvedt’s new book, Memories of the Future, and Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry. These are memoirs with a glaze of fiction, a hybrid form that seems to do little justice either to fiction or memoir, but gives ample room for a writer to resurrect aspects of her/his past and dwell on these. Clearly the author gets something out of it, or else they wouldn’t bother: a sense of play perhaps, or an innocent indulgence, or the pleasure of placing one’s own experience centre-stage. But when the subject matter draws on the author’s relationship with a well-known writer, as is the case with Halliday’s book, there can be something quite instrumental and calculating in the events selected. (Can Halliday’s book stand on its own, without the Roth connection? Yes, it can. It’s well-constructed, and well-written. Is it one of the best May-September novels ever written? No it’s not. Would readers have taken notice of it, and, more to the point would publishershave taken notice of it – it’s a first novel – without the Roth connection? Probably not.)

So what is happening here with all these memoirs and fictioned memoirs? Why in an era where the self has so many platforms and stages, do books need to be co-opted as well? Surely with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, with blogs and millions of web groups, with reality programs occupying more and more of free-to-air TV, the self has ample opportunity to bare its chest, to dance a tango, to do whatever it likes. And it can do it all the time. With people posting on social media numerous times daily, and checking for ‘likes’ even more often, the self never need to take a break from itself.* And perhaps that’s the nub: the self and the selves of our circle (which, these days, can stretch to thousands of strangers) are our main project, and for some of us, our sole project.

So many of the memoirs portray the self, the central character, as a victim. Of course, the very fact of writing the memoir, means the author has triumphed over their victim status, over adversity, but why would anyone want to dwell on it, and dwell for the years it takes to write a book? Why would I want to share my pain with you, a pack of strangers? And why would you, strangers all, want to read about me?

Voyeurism is not the whole explanation, but it plays a role. In much the same way that hardship stories fill the magazine programs on TV, we are drawn to hard-luck stories, particularly from the comfort of our own lounge room. But there are other factors at work here. The boundary between life and entertainment has blurred, and what’s real and what’s contrived/invented has similarly blurred. And being a promoter of self is so easy; it takes far less effort and imagination than learning about other people, people different from you. In the current world we reveal ourselves to people who are like ourselves, and vice versa. In this world, despite its porous borders and its multicultural societies, we are in danger of becoming more insular than ever before. Then there’s the clamouring NOW. Being a promoter of self, roots you in an ever-present, and history becomes irrelevant. With the demise of history, the major source of analysing and understanding the present is being lost.

Not so long ago (but, I’m pleased to note, before Invented Liveswas published) a friend asked me where all the good novels had gone. ‘Into memoir,’ I replied, ‘into memoir.’ Memoir is replacing fiction, self is replacing character, remembered facts are replacing an active imagination. The plethora of memoirs is doing more than just filling our leisure time, it is feeding a new type of person whose major concern is the cultivation of self, whose imagination is sluggish, who is constantly busy, stressfullybusy, with little to show for it at the end of the day.

I have often joked that fiction readers make better citizens. But the fact is that the deep immersion in fiction, the connecting in an imaginative way to characters/people who are very different from you, who might live at another time and/or in another culture, develops an understanding of life beyond your own experience. Fiction can take you into the world, and indeed the mind, of a dictator, a child soldier, a politician. Fiction can take you out of yourself. And what a gift and a relief that can be.

 

* What exactly do we derive from those ‘likes’? That people appreciated your post? Understood it? Laughed at it? Engaged with it? Or is it all about you wanting to be reassured you are not alone in your life? When togetherness is reduced to a click, we’re in a good deal of trouble.

THE WORLD ACCORDING TO…

Jewish Book Week Gala performers.

The 2018 Jewish Book Week in Melbourne opened with a gala choreographed by Galit Klas along with Evelyn Krape. 6 writers were asked to write a short piece shaped around the phrase: The World According to… While others chose a specific person (e.g. a 16th century mathematician, Batman, a Batmitzvah girl) I took a different tack. The readings were accompanied by music and large screen visuals. The evening was tied together with some fabulous singing from Galit. The piece I performed is written below.

 

THE WORLD ACCORDING TO….

Pamela Simon was an excellent wife, an excellent mother, and an excellent grandmother. Indeed she had been imbued with excellence from childhood when, as Pammy Silverstein, she had excelled at her studies, played flute in the youth orchestra, and lead the school debating team to the state finals.

She had married the very excellent David Simon straight after university, and while she had planned to continue her studies with an MA and then a PhD in the border frontier of philosophy and literature, she knew she could return to university later. In the meantime she kept a note book in which she transcribed interesting and punchy quotes from poets and novelists, philosophers and other thinkers.

Ambitions change – or perhaps are supplanted when babies come: first Jonathan then Melanie. And by the time Melanie started kindergarten, rather than a return to university, with David’s printing firm thriving, Pamela joined him in the business.

The years passed, the children flourished, the business went from strength to strength. Every now and then Pamela would pick up her quote-book and read through the inspiring lines; very occasionally she added a new quote drawn from her current reading

The years turned into decades. With David now in his mid-sixties, Melanie was taking over more of the day-to-day running of the business. Retirement was on the horizon, and Pamela was eager for the next stage.

Then her excellent life exploded.

David was indeed retiring from the business, but not to be with her, not to do the things they had long planned together, but to live with Kylie from accounts who was expecting his child. If it were not her own life, her own tragedy, Pam would think she had stumbled into a political soapie.

David moved out of the house and in with Kylie. With the bedroom of the past forty years now full-strength toxic, Pam withdrew to her sewing-come-hideaway room. Jonathan and Melanie, both appalled at their father’s behaviour, tried to coax her out. But she did not want to be coaxed. Her life was over.

‘I would prefer not,’ she said when Melanie on the other side of the closed door invited her mother for lunch, for dinner, for outings with the grandchildren.

‘I would prefer not,’ Pam says, recognising it as a quote from someone. She rummages through her book cases, and there it is: ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’, a short story by Herman Melville. ‘I prefer not,’ Bartleby says, when assigned various work tasks that do not appeal.

Hard to argue against that.

 

The voices begin soon afterwards.

The 19th century philosopher Schopenhauer is first: ‘Life is a miserable thing’, he says. ‘I have decided to spend my life thinking about it.’

Pamela is smiling, the first time in weeks, and then actually laughing when she recalls that the world according to Schopenhauer was not known for its laughs. It’s a pleasant respite in her life of woe. But before long she’s back in the stifling blackness, back in the gluey swamp of grief, loss, anger, misery.

‘The emotions are not skilled workers.’

Another voice, again faintly familiar, cuts through the silence. Pamela, perched on the day bed, reaches for her old quote book. She wipes the dust from the cover, and leafs through the pages of faded ink. So many wise words in this book of hers, all written out in her hand. And there, she’s found it, and another smile. The words are Ern Malley’s, the non-existent poet created by James McAuley and Harold Stewart in what became Australia’s greatest literary hoax. In the world according to Ern Malley:The emotions are not skilled workers.

‘You’re probably right,’ she says aloud. ‘But emotions are so damned insistent. So intrusive. So domineering. Reason doesn’t stand a chance.’

Outside the sewing room, Melanie and Jonathan are eavesdropping on their poor mother. She needs help, they decide, professional help. But how to help someone who refuses to be helped.

Inside her room Pamela is pacing. ‘I liked my life as it was.’

The world according to modern historian Tony Judt intrudes with its usual perspicacity. ‘Nostalgia makes a very satisfactory second home.’

Pam is quick to respond. ‘At least nostalgia dulls the pain. The loneliness, too.’

On the other side of the door Jonathan and Melanie decide on an emergency home visit from the doctor. They hasten from the house their mobile phones clamped to their ears.

Inside the sewing room the conversation continues.

‘Solitude is the best cure for loneliness.’

Pamela riffles through her quote book. Yes, there it is, the world according to the American poet, Marianne Moore. Solitude is the best cure for loneliness.

And hasn’t she longed for solitude day after day, year after year, through the clutter and noise of her busy life?

The world according to the artist and poet Jean Arp joins in.

‘[Human beings] ha[ve] turned [their] back on silence,’ he says. ‘Day after day [they] invent(..) machines and devices that increase noise and distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation.’

Jean Arp wrote this more than seventy years ago. What on earth would he think of the constant talking, typing, texting, beeping, buzzing, connecting of today’s world, Pamela wonders.

So much activity and so much noise. No time to think, to contemplate, to loiter in the imagination. And if we don’t think and we don’t imagine, how are we live? And how will we live with people who are different from ourselves?

Pamela searches through her quote book. Whose thoughts are these? Whose world? She can’t find the source, quickly grabs a pen and writes the thought down on a fresh page in her quote book.

People often praised her for what they called her intuitive understanding of others – even when the person was very different from herself. But it was simple really: she would IMAGINE what it was like to be in their position, to be them. Being an avid reader of fiction had honed this ability. She would read about people so different from herself, people who lived in different countries, different eras, different cultures, different circumstances, and by entering the world of these characters so her imagination was fed. Perhaps fiction readers make better citizens, wiser and more welcoming citizens, and she quickly jots that down too. Whatever the reason, she did seem to understand others, and not just Mrs Nextdoor, or the pharmacist, or family and friends. She understood what it was like to be so desperate you’d risk your life to take a leaky boat to a distant shore where you know no one where you don’t speak the language, where you are exiled from all that is familiar. She can imagine what it’s like to flee persecution in your own country only to be imprisoned by another, a country that you thought would be safe, would be kind. What she can’t imagine is what on earth goes on in the minds of those who demonise these desperate people.

She turns to the world according Thomas Hardy in her quote book.

 

We are getting to the end of visioning
The impossible within this universe,
Such as that better whiles may follow worse,
And that our race may mend by reasoning.

To reason and imagine in the way Hardy suggests requires uninterrupted time. She has plenty of time. The imagination requires solitude. She has plenty of solitude. The imagination does not like boundaries and schedules. With her life blasted to pieces, she lacks boundaries and schedules.

You must change your life.
You must change your life.

The world according to the German poet Rilke sets up a chant.

You must change your life. You must change your life.

The words come rhythmically, they take her over like music. She rises from the bed, collects her hand bag, checks her makeup, leaves the room, walks down the passageway, opens the door and leaves the house.

As she enters the street, the voice in her head shifts to a different register. It is the world according to Emma Goldman and it puts bounce in her step:

If I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution.

ODYSSEUS AND ME

I have always believed that, at a personal level, anything is possible, that if I desire to be a particular someone or do a particular something I can. All my desires have been realistic: no hankerings for time travel or reinvention as a theoretical physicist – though both have enormous appeal – my desires have been possibilities: working as a volunteer in Africa, joining a choir, mountaineering, falling helplessly in love, winning the Miles Franklin. The only things to stop me would be lack of ability, lack of application, and/or lack of courage – all of which, given enough time, could be worked upon and overcome.

Time, so recently as abundant as air, is now suddenly in short supply. One day everything seemed possible, and the next, my life wasn’t exactly on its knees, but neither was it leaping with anticipation.

When did it happen that all the things I planned to do became the things I will never do? I will never climb a mountain, I will never win the Booker, I will never sleep alone in the outback under a big Australian sky; even the choir and the hot love affair have gone the way of all flesh. The list of things not done, so recently sparkling with possibility, now weighs as heavy as sludge, and no matter how numerous your wins and achievements, it’s hard not to feel a failure. Harder still not to blame yourself for all this wasted opportunity.

This is not a good state of mind, not when you are planning on another quarter of a century of healthy and active living. I recall an interview I heard years ago on Late Night Live. Philip Adams was in conversation with the American sociologist Studs Terkel. Terkel, who published consistently throughout his long life (he died at the age of 96 in 2008) was in his early eighties at the time and had just published his latest book. Philip asked him how he managed to remain so productive. Terkel replied that he made a point of doing something new each day. It might be visiting a park or a gallery for the first time; it might be finding a new author or reading a new book; it might be listening to familiar music and hearing it differently (this happened, memorably, to me a couple of years ago when Andrew Davis conducted the MSO playing Mahler’s Third), or watching a spider build a web. It might be a journey, like one I made recently to Iceland, where I ventured into volcanic, snow-covered wildernesses. Being immersed in these beautiful and tranquil environments made me unusually and surprisingly happy.

Something new every day keeps building a life, keeps creating a dynamic growing you. The future might be diminishing, Terkel was saying, but you are not.

On my return from Iceland I was determined to hold on to the sense of wonder and aliveness I’d felt in that country, of being attuned to my environment: to be, as it were, a tourist at home. But it didn’t seem to work. It was as if home activated a stronger force. There was something about its comforts, its familiarity that slowed me down and, at the same time, dulled the questioning mind. I was lulled, stilled, my edges were blurred – like in a warm water bath. And the list of things not done was a constant background presence that grew into a punchy accusation.

And yet I had been ready to come home, and was, at least initially pleased to be back in my own space. But before long it felt as if I were functioning at half-strength. When I mentioned this to people my own age they all nodded knowingly: what I was experiencing, they said, was a fact of advancing years. But it made no sense to me that I was on the final slope, inexorably sliding down to the end. Just days before I’d been hiking over iced lakes; I’d held my ground on the side of a cliff in a bluster so strong that in the end I wedged myself in a cleft of rocks so as not to be blown off; I’d wandered snowy wildernesses alone towards unknown destinations. Age alone could not explain what was happening to me.

It was in this state that I read a review of An Odyssey. A father, a son and an epic by the American classicist, translator and essayist, Daniel Mendelsohn. I know Mendelsohn’s work, have enjoyed his essays in The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. I checked the Readings website, the book was in stock at the Carlton store, I bought myself a copy.

Rationally, I have no special reasons for being drawn to this book. Sure, my reading group has decided on the Greek dramatists for 2018 – Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides – which might make me more susceptible to a book that enters the ancient Greek world; but if this were the case, surely I’d reach for Homer himself. And while I like Mendelsohn’s work, I like the work of so many of the contributors to the NYRB and I haven’t sought out their books.

There have been times in my life when the right book for the right time has simply presented itself. I never expect it, I never willit, it is an inexplicable wonder of the imagination (and heart and soul) and something for which I am deeply grateful.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odysseyturned out to be one such book.

It tells a simple story. In the first semester of a new year, beginning in the depths of winter, Daniel Mendelsohn will be teaching a weekly, semester-long class on The Odysseyat Bard, a liberal arts college, about 140 kilometres north of New York City. His 81-year-old father, Jay, a retired mathematician and a man heavily steeped in the sciences, asks to attend the class. While surprised at the request, and a little worried about the effect his father might have on the other students, Daniel nonetheless agrees. Each week for a semester his father makes the long journey from NYC on the Thursday, stays with his son on Thursday night, attends the class on Friday morning and returns home by train in the afternoon. The students taking this class are under-graduates, Jay would be older than most of their grandfathers.

As a father and a very particular type of scientist there are no shades of grey for Jay. X is X, and if it’s not then either you are wrong or you need to return to the drawing board. When it comes to Homer’s great epic two fundamentals emerge as obvious to him: so-called ‘heroic’ Odysseus is not a hero because he cheats on his wife, and, given that all his men die, the so-called ‘great leader’ is in fact a poor leader of men. This becomes a regular refrain throughout the course, Jay’s regular complaint.

During the semester Daniel and Jay take an intellectual, psychological and literary journey through Homer’s epic, and when the class finishes the two embark on a physical journey: a cruise tracing Odysseus’s travels through the Mediterranean. During the course of these two journeys Daniel comes to understand his father in new and nuanced ways. The Odyssey, or rather his father’s response to it, helps explain his father’s dogmatism, his reluctance to show physical affection, his autocratic paternalism; it also makes sense of those rare and surprising occasions when warmth and softness do seep out. Mendelsohn also takes we readers on two journeys: that of Homer’s Odysseus (and a great introduction for those who have never read Homer) and that of a modern-day father and son on a journey of their own.

Mendelsohn, a translator of Cavafy, draws attention to Cavafy’s wonderful poem ‘Ithaka’ (1911) with its emphasis on the journey rather than the destination: don’t be in a hurry, is the message of this poem, don’t be impatient, embrace the risk and surprise that infiltrates all life’s journeys, soak up all the new experiences. Mendelsohn mentions an earlier version of ‘Ithaka’ called ‘Second Odyssey’ (1894), in which Odysseus, having arrived home after an absence of twenty years – ten years of the Trojan Wars, and ten years trying to get back to Ithaka – finds home dull and boring; he does not feel himself. So, too, in Tennyson’s great poem ‘Ulysses’. In Tennyson’s poem, after striving to return to Ithaka, to his wife and son and ageing father, despite all the dangers he faced on his travels, the set-backs that occurred, the yearnings that plagued him, Ulysses decides to leave home again. (A long-time favourite of mine, I always take a copy of this poem on my own travels.)

I put Mendelsohn’s book aside to reread Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ and Cavafy’s ‘Ithaka’ and search for a copy on-line for Cavafy’s ‘Second Odyssey’. (I have three different volumes of the collected Cavafy, as well as a biography, and in none of them is printed the ‘Second Odyssey’.) When I have finished reading I am steeped in journeying and alert to the shortcomings and deceptive pleasures of home, but most surprising of all, I feel lighter, happy even, and more energised than at any other time since my return from Iceland. And these poems I thought I knew so well, I seem to be reading them anew. Suddenly my diminished future doesn’t matter any more, and, in not mattering, neither does it feel diminished any more.

I’ve had an invigorating time these past few days with Mendelsohn, Tennyson Cavafy and, of course, Odysseus himself; all of these books and poems, these words and ideas have rejuvenated me. It’s the same sort of feeling I had in Iceland as I wandered the snowy wilderness, that sense of newness, of increased understanding, of possibility– Terkel’s way. But there has been something else as well. These Odysseys of Mendelsohn, Homer, Tennyson and Cavafy have nourishedme; even more, they have illuminated and provoked me; and they have armed me for the way ahead. They have been journeyings. And they’ll always be there. Books don’t die, they don’t leave you, they don’t lose their mind. They sit on their shelves waiting for you to find them again and again and again.

When you stop adventuring, when you avoid risk you feel useless. When the brain grows sluggish you feel useless. Life itself demands care and attention, work and revision. It can be difficult sometimes to find the right nourishment, after all, you can’t hop on a plane and fly to Iceland every time you feel bleak and useless. But books, your favourite books will always be there, offering something new and provocative on every reading. So easy to lose sight of this.

Home, certainly the ideal of home, is all about comfort and certainty. If you’re not careful, this can be counter-productive in one’s advancing years. ‘Don’t expect Ithaka to make you rich’, Cavafy writes. While there are rewards and fulfilment to be found at home much more are to be found when you venture beyond your front door – whether physically or in your imagination. To have a zest for life is to relish being alive in the first place. And life is not a warm and cosy nest, though that may be part of it, life is also the clinging to the side of a cliff and feeling the wild wind in your hair.

 

POEMS 

ITHAKA by C.P. Cavafy (translated by Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard

As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare sensation
touches your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
wild Poseidon – you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbours you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind –
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from those who know.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

 

THE SECOND ODYSSEY (1894) – copied from the web, translated by Walter Kaiser.

A great second Odyssey,
Greater even than the first perhaps.
But alas, without Homer, without hexameters.

Small was his ancestral home,
Small was his ancestral city,
And the whole of his Ithaka was small.

The affection of Telemachus, the loyalty
Of Penelope, his father’s ageing years,
His old friends, the love
Of his devoted subjects,
The happy repose of his home,
Penetrated like rays of joy
The heart of the seafarer.

And like rays they faded.

The thirst
For the sea rose up with him.
He hated the air of the dry land.
At night, spectres of Hesperia
Came to trouble his sleep.
He was seized with nostalgia
For voyages, for the morning arrivals
At harbours you sail into,
With such happiness, for the first time.

The affection of Telemachus, the loyalty
Of Penelope, his father’s ageing years,
His old friends, the love
Of his devoted subjects,
The peace and repose of his home
Bored him.

And so he left.

As the shores of Ithaka gradually
Faded away behind him
And he sailed swiftly westward
Toward Iberia and the Pillars of Hercules,
Far from every Achaean sea,
He felt he was alive once more,
Freed from the oppressive bonds
Of familiar, domestic things.
And his adventurous heart rejoiced
Coldly, devoid of love.

 

ULYSSES by Tennyson.

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, & sleep, & feed, & know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour’d of all them;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch where through
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge, like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle —
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and through soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.
There lies the port: the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil’d & wrought, & thought of me —
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads — you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

 

 

 

 

IMAGINATIVE EXCURSIONS

CHIHARU SHIOTA: Absent Bodies.
Anna Schwarz Gallery. Till 5th November, 2016

There have been a handful of occasions in my life when I have stood before a work of art meaning to look at it, appraise it and have found myself drawn into it. In some strange way I become part of the work. It is as if my imagination has merged with the imaginative space of the art work and, at the same time, any mind-body split has been dissolved. I have, simultaneously, a visceral and imaginative response to the work – the heart rate increases, the stomach plunges – and yet I am strangely incorporeal. I am all mind, I am all sensation. It is a pure, original, all-consuming experience.

The first time this happened I was standing in a large room at the old Tate in London the walls of which were covered with huge Rothkos. I was wrapped in Rothkos. Then, all of a sudden there were no edges and I was floating in these paintings and pounding with their rhythm and even more extraordinary I was filled with a type of knowing that, for someone with a strong intellectual bent, was staggeringly new. The second time, also in London, occurred at the Courtauld when for the very first time I saw the genius of Cézanne, saw the planes and shadings, saw the landscape through Cezanne; it changed the way I have looked at landscape – real landscape, in the world – ever since. The third occasion was coming face to face with Arthur Boyd’s ‘Nebuchadnezzar on fire falling over a waterfall’. I remember the shock of understanding when I saw that painting, the utter conviction that this was how life was – the beauty and the terror. The fourth time was walking through Kathy Temin’s large work ‘My Monument: White Forest’ (see the posting Imagination Soup: How novels begin). I was absorbed into this large installation so profoundly that I was transported back ten years to a visit I’d made to Auschwitz-Birkenau – one of the places, I would later discover, that had inspired this work of Temin’s. There was no prior knowledge here, no intention, rather my imagination and the imaginative space of the artwork merged.

And it has just happened again. Today I saw ‘Absent Bodies’ by Chiharu Shiota (at Anna Schwarz Gallery, Melbourne, until 5th November). This beautiful art work, 15×4.5×4.5m takes up half the space of the gallery. It is a huge complex web, or rather webs constructed out of smooth red yarn. The obvious analogy is the network of neurons in the brain, the long axons, the ganglia where nerves meet, blown up to the size of a small house. But to reduce Shiota’s work to mere physical presence is to leach it of power, of effect.

 

shiota_2016_install_final-m

Shiota’s art work knows space, possesses space in the way, say, of the Grand Canyon or the open vistas of Antarctica or, indeed, the unfettered imagination. The tangle of red string creates an environment, and even though you stand at the edge you enter it (and yet physically you can’t enter it because the strings, criss-crossing in all directions, would stop you.) Again that sense of an imaginative space being coterminous with your imagination. Where the threads meet and cross one another, they are not knotted – there are no knots in this tangled environment – rather they twist around one another. And through the middle the threads thin out, may even disappear, creating a tunnel that leads to two chairs at the end; they are vacant, they are waiting for you.

This is an environment of complexity and possibility, just like the imagination. It’s all about connection and space, creativity and insight. It is, truly, beautiful. And it opens a fourth dimension – not time, in fact time is stationary in this sort of unregulated experience – the dimension running along the consciousness-unconsciousness continuum releases the imagination itself, a numinous presence that simultaneously envelops depth and motion, memory and forgetting, experience and insight. This artwork becomes you.

LETTERS (again)

Personal letters are private. Written by one individual to another, they are composed in private and intended to be read in private.

There are few other human-to-human activities that can claim this level of privacy. Sex perhaps. And good conversation, by which I mean those passionate, exploratory, discursive exchanges that occur over many hours, during which mind and language are exercised to a magnificent degree; where the conversation is a journey, a magical mystery tour, in which the stopping-off posts and the end points are adventures to be discovered.

I have fallen in love during hours of close conversation. (As has often been noted, the brain is the sexiest human organ.)

I am currently reading Ted Hughes’s letters, selected and edited by Christopher Reid. Hughes had some fine correspondents, family of course, as well as many writers and artists; and poets, too, such as W.S. Merwin, Daniel Weissbort, Al Alvarez, and Yehuda Amichai (one of Hughes’s favourite poets – mine too). Often in reading Hughes’s letters I am pulled up short by some seriously intoned astrological aside (not sharing his beliefs, I find some of them laughable), some acutely observed aspect of nature, some superbly expressed outrage. Here he is on a particular critic who had given a bad review of a friend’s work.

Davie [the critic] is a kind of parasite in the crutch & armpits of poetry very common in the States – a strident proclaimer of the latest O.K. notions all sure to be found in a pitiful form in his own latest verse. He’s a grotesquely shrunken silly imitator of Pound, forty years after the phenomenon. He’s the old receptacle of every other critic’s – particularly the American battalion – dud cartridges & empty cases & he’s trying to fit them all together, not dropping one, into a semblance of armament….He’s the mincy mean know-all kind of little office snot – a standard English type – gone into Literature, & in the branch of poetry his own practice is about the measure of his understanding – all creak & no cart. (Letter to the poet John Montague, 1961)

I am reading the letters from 1960, 1961 and 1962. I know Plath’s death occurs in February 1963, but Ted Hughes does not know what’s up ahead. As the terrible time draws closer, I read his letters and I feel for him. Feel for him, not her. I read past her death to a letter to Sylvia’s mother, Aurelia Plath, written three months after Sylvia’s death. It is several thousand words long. In this letter Hughes reveals the profound loss he feels – the Plath-Hughes love was a great and difficult one – he also writes about guilt and regret, and he writes at length about his two young children. Always clear and forthright, he states what they need and don’t need – particularly from their grandmother – at this vulnerable time. (Hughes’s relationship with his mother-in-law was never easy. After Sylvia’s death, Aurelia Plath wanted the two children to live with her in America. In this plan, Ted Hughes’s maternal aunt, Hilda Farrer, would look after them. Hilda would have none of it. Nor, of course, would Ted.)

I read this long letter a second time and wish, yes wish, this letter had been public when Robin Morgan wrote her accusation in Monster (1972) and we feminists raised our fists and fury against Ted Hughes, blaming him for Sylvia Plath’s suicide.

I felt ashamed and sorry when, more than 30 years after the publication of Monster, I read Hughes’s Birthday Letters, those brilliant poems of yearning and perplexity about his courtship and marriage to Sylvia and the terrible impact of her death. At twenty I had no idea how ignorant I was. The certainties and righteousness of youth can be so brutal.

But I digress, this article is not about Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, it is about letters. When published letters are by famous people you, the reader, already know the context, you know the life and the work. You are in possession of the basic narrative, a sort of connective tissue which cushions the letters and holds them together. So when Ted Hughes asks a publisher to consider a collection of poems by a poet called, David Wevill in December 1962, but expressly asks that under no circumstances should his, Hughes’s intervention be mentioned, the reader knows why. Some months earlier, Hughes and Wevill’s wife Assia had begun an affair. We know that two months after the letter was written Sylvia will kill herself, we know that Ted Hughes’s second wife will be Assia Wevill. (I find myself wanting to warn Ted.)

None of this sort of background narrative exists when letters have been written by an unknown person in an ordinary context. (An extraordinary context would be letters written by a foot soldier from the trenches in the Great War – we may not know the individual soldier, but we do know the circumstances in which he finds himself.) When it comes to an ordinary personal letter, any reader who is not the intended recipient or a confidante of the recipient is reliant on the letter itself to supply a cushioning narrative, together with the products of their own imagination. The letters of ordinary people in ordinary circumstances, letters that relate loves or losses or illness or travels or local happenings or desires or disappointments provide huge imaginative space for any unrelated reader.

Sylvie Morrow, the character in my new novel, The Science of Departures, who collects letters, is trying to understand the appeal of these private communications that are not intended for her, but speak to her in an utterly irresistible way. The man in the novel who becomes her lover gives her a stack of epistolary novels, including Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, generally considered to be the first of the modern epistolary novels. He gives her Bellow’s Herzog, Anne Stevenson’s Correspondences, a verse novel in letters (and yes, she is the same Anne Stevenson who wrote Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath). He also gives her Dracula.

Like Sylvie I have struggled through Pamela and struggled part way through the Richardson’s 1500 page door-stopper Clarissa (many have started, few have finished). Indeed, I have read quite a number of epistolary novels in recent times. The problem, it seems to me, of the epistolary form is that the necessity of carrying the narrative actually bleeds the letters of their sense of privacy and intimacy, of being intended for just one person. Indeed, in many of the letters in epistolary novels one gains no sense of the recipient whatsoever, and not much of the writer either – the ‘I’ of the writer being too often crushed under the narrator function. In short, often epistolary novels do not read like letters at all, rather they are like any first-person narrative – replete with all the pitfalls of that particular point of view.

I’m yet to be convinced that the epistolary novel can be true to the qualities of letters AND the requirements of a novel.

How very different is the journal novel, of which Dracula reigns supreme. I read Bram Stoker’s novel for the very first time only recently. It is a gripper. The story is told through the journal entries of three main characters, with the addition of a few letters and some diary entries. The work is masterfully structured so it reads like a continuous narrative with changing character point of view. I could not put it down.

__________________

My character, Sylvie, reads the epistolary novels given to her by her lover. She decides that what she gets from her letter collection is quite different – and preferable. She wants the private tone of real letters, that clandestine atmosphere they create. It is, she decides, the very intimacy of the letter form that draws her into other people’s lives, lives that are not her own, lives that are far distant from her own. The letters in her collection, having no back-story require her own imagination to be active; it is she who supplies the connecting narrative. She decides that she wants letters to be letters and do the job of letters; the epistolary novels do not do that. She wants this whether it is the letters in her collection, or the volumes of published letters written by famous people. She wants letters that allow her to trespass on private lives.

I find myself in full agreement with her.

NOT NOSTALGIA

A little over a century ago, E.M. Forster wrote ‘The Machine Stops’, a short story that depicts human civilisation some time in the future. I expect Forster was projecting into the far-distant future – millennia not centuries – but in certain respects the world of his story bears a remarkable resemblance to human society today. In Forster’s story people live by themselves in their own room (children are raised in special nurseries). Within these rooms everything necessary for life is available at the push of a button. When you are hungry you press a button and food appears, when thirsty, another button produces a drink. When you want to sleep you push a button and a bed materialises, when you wish to wash, the right button will conjure a bath. If you are feeling ill, a thermometer, stethoscope and other diagnostic tools will appear to test and diagnose, following which, appropriate drugs will be dispensed. Under normal circumstances people do not meet in the real world, there’s no need and besides, touch between humans is considered rude, even disgusting. There’s plenty of company via a blue screen which links each person with thousands of others located across the world. With so many friends and so much activity via the screen, people are busy, their every moment occupied. Art has no place in this world. Creativity itself has been rendered obsolete. Nature – mountains, sunsets, clouds – is feared. With everything in hand’s reach, direct observation of the world is deemed neither necessary nor desirable. People are happy to stay in their rooms. And why not? The machine looks after all of their needs.

I read this story in my twenties during my Forster phase – what a pleasurable plunge that was. I have returned many times since to the essays and the novels – Howard’s End and The Longest Journey in particular. But I’ve never consider Forster to be an aficionado of the short story form and wouldn’t have reread ‘The Machine Stops’ if not for an article by Atul Gawande about Oliver Sacks in The New Yorker (September 14th, 2015). Gawande, a physician and writer like Sacks himself, was an admirer of the great doctor who died 30th August, 2015. Gawande met Sacks only twice, the first time in 2002 when Gawende was completing his medical training and again in 2014. The two of them did, however, correspond by letter.

Sacks, according to Gawande, never used email, rather he wrote letters long-hand with a fountain pen on quality paper. In a letter, four weeks before he died, in which he bemoaned the deadening effects of social media, Sacks referred to the Forster story.

So, because of Sacks and because of Atul Gawende and because I am months behind with reading The New Yorker I have just reread ‘The Machine Stops’. I needed this story because of a recent longing for my old, portable Olivetti typewriter which, in a state of technological euphoria, I packed up and took to the Salvos some time last century.

I want it back.

I haven’t capitulated to nostalgia. I considered those milky yearnings an excuse to escape the demands and challenges of today. The term ‘nostalgia’ was coined in 1688 by a Swiss doctor, Johannes Hofer, in a dissertation to Basle University. He meant it as ‘a medical term to describe a depressed mood caused by intense longing to return home.’ (I gleaned this from an essay by Avishai Margalit on the role of the British in the making of modern Israel published in the NYRB, 7/2/2013.) A few centuries on, nostalgia relates to ‘home’ in the broadest sense: as a concept and a feeling – as well as a place. It is a notion fed by memory, by photos, by shared recollections, and by objects too. In essence there is nothing worrisome about this. The problem arises when longing for the past becomes primarily a longing for the familiar, for the known and certain. When longing for the past is used to flee from today’s rambunctious unpredictabilities.

My pangs for the old Olivetti tossed out during a technological high of several decades duration relates very much to concerns I wrote about in ‘Escape from Cyberspace’ (5/2/15) and the two posts about letter writing (‘Epistolary Pleasures’ – 22/6/15, and ‘The Passion of Letters’ – 16/7/15). In those articles I mounted a case for uncommitted time: time to think and imagine and create. Being constantly digitally connected is like being on speed: fabulously energising but not particularly productive. I have a desire for slow time. The manual typewriter, like writing letters, like the delights of onion skin paper, like my digital-free Saturdays, is in service not to nostalgia but a desire for deep and prolonged thought, and remaining with a train of thought long enough for ideas to emerge and be fleshed out, and understanding (quite different from knowledge) to be furthered.

My long discarded typewriter has been on my mind for months. The combination of Forster’s story, the fact that Sacks wrote letters longhand, and my own admiration and gratitude for Sacks work prompted me finally to make a move.

Having an Olivetti back in the days of yore wasn’t the same as having a Remington or an Olympia or an Underwood. It was akin to driving a Renault, reading Borges, travelling to Peru, and sitting through festivals of central European films. I was so taken by my Olivetti I made a tapestry of it. (And perhaps this is the time to confess that my Olivetti was actually not mine. Although it did become mine, but whether by fair means or foul, I can no longer say.)

Olivetti Typewriter

For decades I have noticed a shop near Melbourne University in the inner-city suburb of Carlton. The shop is called Elite Office Machines. The window display is a jumble of typewriters and adding machines. Some of these machines are not real but rather cute models. I have often wondered whether the owner of this shop collects typewriters or sells them. This morning I rang the proprietor. He’s a seller all right, a seller and a repairman, in fact Zeljko Koska is one of the few remaining typewriter repairmen in the country – possibly the entire world. He’s been operating from this location for 50 years, and yes, he said, he had a portable manual Olivetti.

I checked my phone. It was 38 degrees outside. Only a necessary mission would drive me into such heat (25 degrees is the upper limit of what I find tolerable). To Carlton I drove and found a parking spot right outside the shop. The parking gods are clearly partial to a manual typewriter, I decided. I entered the shop. Mr Koska – Tom – had just finished checking the Olivetti he had in stock. I looked at it. I looked at the case. It was mine, my old machine. I’m sure it was my machine. I couldn’t wait to get my fingers on it.

As it happened fingers, hands, wrists, indeed whole arms were needed. I had forgotten the pressure required to depress the keys of a manual typewriter. But the noise, that soothing yet driving clacking sound, was writerly Bach.

I went to an ATM to get some cash – no credit cards at Tom’s business – and decided that as much as I wanted an Olivetti, I also wanted a manual typewriter that was comfortable to use. On returning to the shop I tried a Brother Deluxe 750TR, a machine that would be a good decade younger than my Olivetti. The clack was even more musical and there was a spring in the keys that delighted my fingers. I tore myself away from my Olivetti – it was hard, very hard, but either I could capitulate to nostalgia or I could buy a typewriter that I knew would assist in a slower more meditative approach to work.

And here it is.

Olivetti tapestry

Tom, while fit and trim, is a man of a certain age. It turns out he is 73. If he’s not around who will service my typewriter? Who will supply the ribbons? He told me he had no plans to retire. He also revealed that people in their 20s and 30s make up a good many of his customers these days. Young people who seek the sort of slow, contemplative, creative intellectual stimulation that comes from books and digital-free days and manual typewriters.

In Forster’s story, diversity among people has disappeared. Fortunately in this aspect of his futuristic view he was wrong. Although the noise from social media, Google, iTunes and the rest fills our lives, the readers and creators and thinkers are still out there – in small numbers, but that has always been the case. And while they are, there’ll always be a place for hand-written letters, portable manual typewriters, and afternoons spent reading books – alongside the convenience, the wonders, the speed and the reach of digital technology.

 

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.