Category Archives: reading

The stuff of Life

word

‘ It was about being true to the very stuff of life, it was about trying to capture, though you never could, the very feel of being alive. It was about finding a language. And it was about being true to the one fact, the one thing only followed from the other, that many things in life – oh so many more than we think – can never be explained at all. ‘ Graham Swift ‘ Mothering Sunday’

This , then , is what I have to bring today. The closing sentences of the book I have just laid down. It did not disappoint. Within its narrative Graham Swift refers to one of my storytelling heroes – Joseph Conrad – who himself has an interesting comment on storytelling, whose quest was ‘ by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm — all you demand — and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.’

And the overriding sense I am left with is how fiction gives us permission to be most fully ourselves. I cannot imagine being the me I am without having encountered the characters and the writers I have met throughout my days. Science is mastering many of the facts , we are illuminating the darkness, but only dimly. Science is the first to corroborate how much is still unknown. A particle acts differently dependant upon it being observed – does this strike you as prescient on the human condition? We are and simultaneously are not the person we imagine ourselves to be. The codes we observe do not rely merely on the context of our time and culture, but also on our perception of them and of the fluctuating circumstances. That is confusing, much easier to narrate to you a true account of behaviour which shows how I hold personal codes of truth and loyalty , of fidelity and duty to be central to the person I am and yet act in complete opposition to them, choosing to end one marriage to a wonderful man , and father of my two sons because I had walked blindly into a new relationship where I felt at home. Not even a choice. And reader – I married him.

I haven’t learnt enough just from the handful of people who are present in my life, or who have been there in the past – they are priceless, but they do not bring me the breadth and depth of experience which helps me to understand I can forgive myself for frailty, for impatience, for laziness, for ineptitude. Because I am not alone. Because growing up is not just trying to imitate some version of being human handed down by parents et al, it is about encountering the various selves you inhabit, and allowing yourself not to be intimidated or frightened by them. Listening to voices from elsewhere can somehow bring you closer to knowing how to be your own.

In ‘Mothering Sunday’ Graham Swift practices his alchemy – his narrative is from a woman and it has one of the most authorative voice of being woman I have encountered. He is masterly in how deftly he practices this – the small sentences slipped in that are the ‘tell’ of what it feels like to be 22, free, single, and enjoyably bruised by sexual encounter ( not in a violent, abusive way). On removing from the scene, she mounts her bicycle ‘ slightly sore where she met the saddle’ .

I imagine the novelist’s challenge to himself – inhabiting not only the woman’s pysche at 22, but also later on – in her nineties and remembering. I imagine him imagining the reader – me – enjoying his playfulness, his zest for finding the right word, the correct tone, the piercing stab of the dramatic.

The point I am making, albeit clumsily is this – we need stories to remind us not how to live, but that life is mystery. Inexplicable paradox is what exists around us and about us, and the navigation around this mortal coil is facilitated by the storytellers, the magicians, the soothsayers, the lyric writers, the graffiti artists, the dramatists, the teachers.

There is now such a thing as a bibliotherapy – the art of listening to someone’s personal dilemnas and furnishing them with appropriate bookwear. (bookware?) . Such a stance should please me, but I am contrary enough to find something unsettling in it. Something proscribed – but then why not – we go to doctors, why not book doctors? I have a healthy disposition to challenge anything that is ‘good for me’ , and have only just discovered the heady delight of sucking up oranges. Now I evangelise about oranges. And for me they are the only fruit. I still have a long way to go.

I leave the last words to a woman author of impeccable skills, Marilynne Robinson, author of ‘Housekeeping’, ‘Gilead’ and others you may want to discover.

“While you read this, I am imperishable, somehow more alive than I have ever been.”

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For the sake of a life.

                              The Layers   by Stanley Kunitz

 

layers

I am repeating myself because I sent this poem out into the ether earlier in my blogging life.  It bears repeating. I remind myself from time to time about what I want from this one and precious life.  Nowadays the buzz word is mindfulness, but the concept behind mindfulness is as ancient as time. At least as ancient as man’s consciousness began to reflect upon its self-awareness.  Our lives are different to those that were lived by the peoples of ancient civilizations, but in the perspective of the brain evolution, that span of time is just a nano second, so it is worth reflecting upon how humans in the past have reconciled themselves to the parodoxes that appear in all our lives.  You can choose from the philosophers who all have a different take , or the religious men who all have their differing stories they want to share, or you can listen to the poets.  The poets assume nothing of the reader, do not desire any allegiances, demand no tithes.  They write about the human experience because they are stuck in it. And in that attempt to soothe themselves a line of energy transmits from them to the reader. Sometimes it simply vaporises and never arrives anywhere, it just disappears as a coil of smoke will disappear into the air. Other times it sends an electric current through the reader and the reader is changed forever. As all the food that we eat, the sights that we see, the people we meet all impact on the messages our brains control our minds with, so with words.

savour

That which ‘hath no parts….no magnitude. ‘a.k.a Euclid’s point

John Banting

” Anyway, these ideas or feelings or ramblings had their satisfactions.  They turned the pain of others into memories of one’s own.  They turned pain, which is natural, enduring and eternally triumphant, into personal memory, which  is  human, brief, and eternally elusive.  They turned a brutal story of injustice and abuse , an incoherent howl with no beginning or end, into a neatly structured story in which suicide was always held out as a possibility. They turned flight into freedom, even if freedom meant no more than the perpetuation of flight. They turned chaos into order, even if it was at the cost of what is commonly known as sanity”

It has taken me to page 189 to find a passage that sings.  This is a trial of a book, and I am channelling my resilience in order to discover nuggets such as this.

I have found one more so far – and one that is amusing me .  The link to my own life dilemna is that of finding an engagement present which has more meaning to the recipients than a token of splendid hope for a future of wedded bliss.  I have found my ideal gift in a tableau written by Bolano in which his character re-enacts one of the ready made artworks by Marchel Duchamp. He hangs up a geommetry book on a clothesline in the garden “letting the wind go through the book, choose its own problems, turn and turn out the pages”     Marcel gave this instruction to his sister in law as his wedding gift and in turn she made a painting of it, calling it ‘Marcel’s Unhappy Readymade. Duchamp said it amused him to bring the idea of happy and unhappy into readymades and include the actions and consequences of the elements. So Bolano is referencing the ideas of a surrealist artist , one who said

“What is the solution?  There is no solution because there is no problem. Problem is the invention of man – it is nonsensical” .

And yet it is possible the book Duchamp chose for his readymade artwork was Euclid’s Elements, in whose time it was believed not distinction existed between physical and and geometrical space. Euclid’s definition of a point is “that which hath not parts, or which hath no magnitude”.  This surreal artist has attempted bravely to surmount the inexpressibly bleak meaningless of existence by purporting to draw attention to it, and in doing so produces opportunity for reportage and creative endeavour.  So that book of geometry that is reduced to nothing by the wind and the rain is now an idea in an artists brain, it has been made into a painting, and subsequently into a further exploration yet by a later artist John Banting in his surreal picture, and later still , finds its way into Bolano’s artistic creation. An author who plays with the notion of novel and fiction and reality.  Margins between what is real and what is imagined are blurred, but the interest for me in his writing is how he mirrors the simultaneous mundanity of life with the danger and inherent grotesque realities that invade our lives, as horrors of brutal terrorism and inhumanity are played out daily in all of our lives across the internet and the screen.

Do I dare to to imitate art and give my nephew and his intended an instruction to hang a book of geometry from their washing line, and name it as a gift.  My husband says not.

I think it is the best gift they will ever receive.

The book I am reading is Roberto Bolano’s 2666 and the image is John Bantings ‘Ruin And Clothes line’ 1937, an artist who met Duchamp . Courtesy of  http://www.lissfineart.com

Reading is the way. Signposting .

oldnorth

‘Language is the centre of everything and what we do, it’s a fundamental of being human’.

“every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without his book, he would perhaps never have perceived in himself” -M. Proust

You don’t have to read Proust to know what he is describing here, but it probably helps to recognise how reading affects the qualitative experience of being human, because it really does. And some people are missing out. Reading provides a context from which we can better explore the subjective realities we all live in.  It takes time to build a human – that’s why artificial intelligence still has a long road to travel.  Time, patience and compassion. There is an apparent paradox that the activity of reading brings out the true – in reading fictive lives the reader is learning compassion in their own realities, the exploration from the armchair is as powerful as the journey of long haul flight’s destination – and all readers know this. Proust realises in Time Regained that

“[I]n all perception there exists a barrier as a result of which there is never absolute contact between reality and our intelligence”.

From the time of our first story we learn how our world may look different to others, that we experience through our personal senses and that these differ dependant on who you are born to, where you are in the world, when you live.  This is possibly the foundation upon which the human experience is subjectively different to other species.  I suspect the foundation has other substantive components to it, but I am discussing the value of language here.  When Proust spends his time describing past experiences he is wanting to explore the depth of his imaginings understanding that the subjective experience of everything relies on the layers of memory and associations with it.  And so we too can take pleasure in the understanding that our contact with nature or mathematics or love is embedded in the personal narrative we bring to it, we are not having to live in an impersonal world of the rational mind, which only describes the ‘thing’ and not the feeling that the ‘thing’ triggers. We are all looking for those “intermittencies of the heart,”  amongst our  ‘dog eared maps of desire’, and that’s o.k.!  Within ‘ Time Regained’ Proust is seeking to uncover and experience “[f]ragments of existence withdrawn from Time” in order to live more fully. That appears to be his aim – to live more fully. To live more fully, shouldn’t one turn ones attention to living rather than writing?  Not if writing is what brings meaning. Proust exhorts us to engage, to dig deep, to immerse in experience. He did.

Proust is a mountaineer and we cannot all follow his individual path up the mountain, but his message is valid and important – we can transform our experiences by what we bring to them, and if we bring to them the values inherent in authentic works of art, we too can recognise our own moments of illumination to be of value.  An artist is working in metaphor in order that he gives us easier maps to read our own atlases; the poet, the author treads those maps tirelessly and becomes practised with them in order that we communicate with one another. And the magic is this – the artist communicates that which is beyond language, using language, knowing it is just the tool of something infinitely more complex, more interesting, more mysterious. Thus music moves us when we cannot play a note, and poets sing melodies of solace and yearning beyond meaning. I read Eliot long before I knew a poem even held meaning.  That is magic and mystery

working on