Category Archives: Writing

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.

 

EPISTOLARY PLEASURES

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

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

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

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

LETTERS

LETTERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

Basildon Onion Skin Paper

Basildon Onion Skin Paper

STARTING ALL OVER AGAIN

My seventh novel, The Memory Trap, was published last week, although my work on the book finished some months ago. It was then that I corrected the third proof pages and sent them back to my publisher. Four years of work completed, four years of life passed. I should have settled back and savoured the moment, instead I was assaulted by a battery of not-unfamiliar questions. Will I ever write another novel? Do I want to write another novel? And if I don’t write another novel, how then to make the days pass? I felt emptied out, not a spark of an idea. Not a spark. So terrified was I of the void, I found myself in a panicky riffling through the piles of unread books which had mounted up in the previous four years. I needed to fill up, I needed to know there’d be another novel.

I began with a biography of the poet Rilke and then moved on to the memoirs of the remarkable Lou Andreas-Salomé, writer, psychologist, lover of Rilke and Nietzsche, close friend of Freud. At this filling-up stage when a novel is finished, I select books on the slightest provocation and never reflect much on the process; I assume that some logic will emerge which will help shape the next novel. So when I found myself in a frantic searching for every possible translation of one of Rilke’s love poems to Lou, ‘Blot out My Eyes and I’ll still See You’, I plunged ahead without question. I was rummaging around in passionate territory. Perhaps my next novel would centre around a big, unconventional love – or several loves. I reached for my pen, scribbled a couple of sentences, but the ideas were drivel and I put the notebook down. Far too soon for sensible words of my own.

I read Richard Holmes’s Age of Wonder, a marvellous idiosyncratic plunge into the hearts and minds of 19th century scientists, those romantics geniuses who were captivated by the new worlds they were in the process of revealing. I read about William Herschel’s telescopes and his discovery of Uranus, and Caroline Herschel’s extraordinary mapping of the distant skies. Then to the early balloonists for whom discovery was far more powerful than danger, and Mungo Parks, the deeply humane adventurer and explorer into deepest darkest Africa. Holmes, who knows more than most about the romantic novelists and poets, explores the new mechanical age through Mary Shelley’s profound and poignant novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. I love Richard Holmes’s book. Descartes named wonder as the first of the passions; I am filled with wonder as I read about these men and women who, inspired by wonder pushed against the boundaries of knowledge and understanding. Such lives they enjoyed.

As for my own life, despite having received the advance copies of The Memory Trap, things were pretty drab. There’s the foreboding about reviews, and the quiet niggle of a book before the publicity has taken hold, and of course the bruising absence of my beloved. I long for the conversations of the past. I plan topics for discussion, I rehearse ideas and arguments, I talk aloud in the empty rooms. All of it is cruelly unsatisfying. Better, I think, to confine the discussion to my imagination. I make side-trips to Yehudi Amichai’s blood-boiling poetry and to a couple of early Iris Murdoch novels. I curse Peter Conradi yet again for being so bloody coy and disingenuous in his biography about her. And I reach for Jane Austen as I have done before in extremis: Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility are entirely satisfying.

On May 1st, the official publication date of The Memory Trap, I open After the Victorians by A.N. Wilson, a book I’ve had sitting on my shelf for years. (Incidentally, I far prefer Wilson’s messy book about Iris Murdoch to Conradi’s smug production.) Like The Age of Wonder, A.N. Wilson’s After the Victorians is another idiosyncratic history, and like the Holmes, it revels in art and literature. Wilson’s book stops in the early fifties, the period when my own life began.

And suddenly it all comes rushing back. Those taut years of childhood and the books which laid down tracks in the nervy terrain of my mind. Books which inspired a secret, parallel life to that expected of a middle-class, Jewish girl growing up in suburban Melbourne, books which provided me with passions far removed from the soppy intrigues of the playground. Indeed, I was still in primary school when it first occurred to me that all the interesting people were either dead or existed only in novels.

There were three books that were particular childhood favourites. Firstly, a grey hardcover volume of Lives of Famous Scientists, a chapter per famous scientist, each headed up by a glossy, black and white photograph. I loved those scientists; so much more reliable and interesting than my friends, they provided me with a satisfying brew of stimulation and solace. My favourite was Marie Curie, the only woman in the collection, so passionate and tragic. At the age of nine, I wanted to be her – although would prefer to swap Pierre with Ricky Nelson, my favourite singer at the time. I spent hours, years, trying to work out what I could discover which had not yet been discovered. It was when I was becoming quite discouraged – after all, if I could think of something to be discovered, clearly it already had been – that I found on my mother’s bookshelves Bertrand Russell’s Why I am Not a Christian and other Writings.

In a Jewish household, the answer to Russell’s title was perfectly obvious, but the curiosity about a book premised on such an enquiry was overwhelming. Included in the book was a debate between Russell and a churchman, and it was here that I came upon what I regarded as Russell’s tour de force: If God made the world, who made God? I was delighted with the simplicity of his argument, the indisputable proof, as it seemed to my now 12-year-old self, and with lives of famous scientists in easy reach, I decided that whatever existed could be understood, and whatever could be understood must in some way exist. The world suddenly became less threatening and I stopped believing in God.

The third childhood favourite, also from my mother’s bookshelves and also discovered at the age of twelve, was Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Not for imagined worlds, and certainly not for a group of children with whom I might have identified, but for the marvellous, lyrical language. I would leap from one italicised section to the next for the sheer delight of those words. How they drowned out the mundane utterances of the real world.

Now decades later, sitting in my study with Rilke, Lou, Holmes, and the whole of Virginia Woolf within easy reach, I am struck by the similarities between the 60+ novelist and the 12-year-old child. Both depend on books to fill up, to feel alive, to kick start an imagination which for various reasons is tired out. Both use books to fly into an imagined world when the real world is too hard, or too dull, or just too empty. And through books both find people to talk to, to argue with, people who provide sanctuary to both and start-up fuel for the novelist.

As I read Wilson’s book about the figures and events in Britain of the first half of the twentieth century questions spring unbidden to mind: Is it possible to be good? How much should one risk in experiencing all that life has to offer? What extent of compromise is acceptable to do the work one is driven to do? Is passion always its own defence? And war: is it ever justified? And the press: its power and its responsibilities. I linger in Wilson’s section on Northcliffe, Beaverbrook and Rothermere and the rise of the popular press in England. It is fascinating and I’m surprised to find it so fascinating. And the 1950s, the point where Wilson finishes his book, I find myself thinking of that time, the layers of secrets that supported so many lives, women’s lives in particular.

Henry James went into society and found his stories. I enter the absences of my life, spice them with other people’s words and feel my own imagination begin to stir. All novels are autobiographical in one respect only, not in the storyline nor the characters, but in why the author wrote that particular novel at that particular time.

Therein lies a truth.

And as ideas open before me – the press, the 1950s, secrets – I am gaining confidence there will be another novel.