Tag Archives: literature

ESCAPE FROM CYBERSPACE

I was born into a print world.

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

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

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

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

This is life in cyberspace. And it has consequences.

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

Until recently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

NOTHING LIKE CHILDBIRTH


It is nothing like childbirth. Joyce Carol Oates has done it more than twenty times, so too, did Iris Murdoch. Patrick White notched up around a dozen, as has John Coetzee. Childless the lot of them.

I am, of course, speaking about books: writing and publishing books.

I’ve published 7 novels. With each one I have been asked by otherwise sensible people if it’s like a birth, or perhaps the grown child leaving home. The answer is a simple, obdurate: NO.

— No messy communion with another in order to get the project started.

— No incessant consultation with another as the project progresses.

— No constant negotiation with the object itself for the next twenty or thirty years.

THIS IS HOW IT IS.

There are the delights of lolling around in your imagination for two or three or four years, until you’ve got the project into perfect shape.

There’s the pleasure of solitude, of working in isolation, of reading and writing – just you and the emerging project and the best minds that have ever put pen to paper.

There are the regular frustrations and irritations and challenges that serve to remind you that being human is all about the necessity – and the discomforts – of change.

There’s the knowledge that eventually you’ll hone this mess of ideas and characters into a form that makes sense to other people, a form that’s sufficiently elegant to meet your own hard-to-satisfy standards.

Writers can be sloppy in every aspect of human existence except writing. As Cynthia Ozick wrote in her essay, ‘The Seam of the Snail’ (Metaphor and Memory, 1989):

I attend to crabbed minutiae and am self-trammeled through taking pains. I am a kind of human snail, locked in and condemned by my own nature. The ancients believed that the moist track left by the snail as it crept was the snail’s own essence, depleting its body little by little; the farther the snail toiled, the smaller it became, until it finally rubbed itself out. That is how we perfectionists are. Say to us Excellence, and we will show you how we use up our substance and wear ourselves away, while making scarcely any progress at all. The fact that I am a perfectionist in a narrow strait only, and nowhere else, is hardly to the point, since nothing matters to me so much as a comely and muscular sentence. It is my narrow strait, this snail’s road; the track of the sentence I am writing now; and when I have eked out the wet substance, ink or blood, that is its mark, I will begin the next sentence. Only in treading out sentences am I perfectionist; but then there is nothing else I know how to do, or take much interest in.

Not the sort of approach recommended in the raising of a child.

You write, you read, you revise, you read and write some more, you shape and reshape, you lop off the juts and bumps, you sand the rough surfaces, you send it to your agent who sends it to your publisher, there’s more work to be done (but she loves it, you tell yourself, my publisher says she loves it) and then it goes into production. There are proofs and more proofs and cover roughs, then the novel is with the printer and there is nothing more to be done.

***********

Two days ago a delivery man arrives with a box from HarperCollins. My delighted surprise must have been writ unambiguously across my face (I’d not expected this parcel for another week). The young man asks about the contents of the box. Advance copies of my new novel, I say. Now he is looking pretty excited too. Are you a reader? I ask. It turns out he is, so I invite him to share my joy.

Picture it, the two of us on my narrow porch opening the box, burying through the padding, and then the book in my hand, the two of us poring over that very first copy. He agrees it looks splendid, that there is mystery in the cover. ‘Yeah,’ he says, ‘I’d want to read it.’ He particularly likes the rainbow lorikeet flying among the pillars of the neoclassical building depicted on the front. We flip through to make sure the pages aren’t blank (one of the writer’s nightmares). All is well. When the young man turns to leave, he addresses me by name: ‘Goodbye, Andrea,’ he says, ‘and congratulations.’ It is a lovely and unexpected connection.

I carry the box inside. My dog, a literary canine in the tradition of Flush, recognises the significance of the occasion. In the living room I withdraw each book one by one. No matter how many times this happens – the arrival of first copies – the magic never diminishes. Nor the excitement, nor the pleasure. The thing, fully formed, bearing the authority of print, the public cladding of a cover, your own name written on the front – not that that strikes you, or at least not me: the book is a thing in itself, not simply mine any more.

This household was for a many years a two-writer household. The same ritual was observed every time advance copies arrived. I now prop the books side by side, covers facing out, on the shelf above the TV and l study them. I see how the light plays on the print – how the letters shine against the matt finish of the cover image – how the title, THE MEMORY TRAP, large and silvered in certain light actually seems to lure the observer in. I focus on the image itself that could well be the colonnade of the British Museum, and the flash of a rainbow lorikeet between the columns; the orange on the parrot’s breast is the same colour as the umbrella carried by the woman walking down the colonnade. And there in the colonnade’s shadows is a man in a suit.

I had minimal involvement with the creation of the cover, I can, therefore, admire it whole-heartedly. It is, I decide, perfect.

The Memory Trap. First copies

I take down a copy – as one would in a bookshop – there’s another rainbow lorikeet on the spine – and then to the back. I’m oddly nervous about reading the blurb even though I wrote it myself, even though I’ve read it about three thousand times. It’s as if its placement in situ might somehow disrupt the flow of words. I force myself to read it. No alchemy has occurred. And Rai’s generous words – in gold, the same colour they’ve used for the author name on the front. I like that.

I open the book. There are surprises here – good surprises – but I cannot read the text, not yet. If I find mistakes, if I find sentences that fall over there’s nothing I can do about them now. Later, I’ll read it. For the moment I’ll just enjoy the object.

It’s nothing like a birth. My work is done. And until the reviews begin, I can indulge myself in the pleasure of the thing itself and the wonder that fiction inspires.