Tag Archives: books

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.”

‘let life take it’s course.’

“But your solitude will be a support and a home for you, even in the midst of very unfamiliar circumstances, and from it you will find all your paths.”

 

nightingale

I have sons and stepsons- five young adults – and I am vexed about the same concerns for all of them.  How can I help them to live well in the world?  And every time I ask myself this question I come to the conclusion that I can’t. I am still struggling with the question myself as we all do.  I know in the rational part of my mind that each individual must ask their own questions, find their own path to some sort of equilibrium.  That said, there is the other part of me, the spark of optimistic longing that wants to share that wealth of experience from authors and artists that have resonated with me, moved me, performed some magical alchemy that has allowed me to feel some sort of transcendent moment which makes life worthwhile, meaningful, exciting. It’s also why I write a blog, a catharsis of sharing what I have found valuable to my living. A howl into the wilderness to connect with other lives, belong to a tribe where I am accepted, nourished, nurtured.

Thus I come to the nub of today’s post – the illuminating writing from Rainer Maria Rilke in ‘Letters to a young poet’.  The words of that hopeful young man  preface the Penguin Little Black Classics version, as an older version of himself  speak for themselves.

‘And where a great and unique person speaks, the rest of us should be silent’

-Franz Xaver Kappus , Berlin , 1929.

I will choose some of the text of the letters and share it here, but recommend the book to be read in its entirety,

On being asked to give criticism to the poets verses, Rilke writes to him ;

‘You ask whether your verses are good.  You ask me that. You have asked others, before, You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you worry…let me ask you to give up all that.  You are looking to  the outside, and that above all you should not be doing now.  Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody. There is only one way. Go into yourself.’

‘…read as little as possible in the way of aesthetics and criticism (of works of art) – it will either be partisan views, fossilized..or neat wordplay, where one opinion will triumph one day and the opposite the next. Works of art are infinitely solitary…. Only love can grasp them and hold them and do them justice. – With regard to any such disquisition, review or introduction, trust yourself and your instincts; even if you go wrong in your judgement, the natural growth of your inner life will gradually, over time, lead you to other insights.  Allow your verdicts their own quiet untroubled development which like all progress must come from deep within and cannot be forced or accelerated. Everything must  be carried to term before it is born. To let every impression and the germ of every feeling come to completion inside, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, in what is unattainable to one’s own intellect, and to wait with deep humility and patience for the hour when a new clarity is delivered. ‘

Rilke doesn’t just advise the young man about art – it is fuller than that – but expresses his views on sexuality too – ideas about how to take deep pleasure in mature love, acknowledging that man often gets it wrong when  ‘he loves only as  a man, not as a human being’. If I could just take that line and impress it on my progeny, that would be enough.

More to follow!!

 

 

 

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

‘True Impressions’ – the essential necessity of art

paulcard

 

‘And art and literature – what of them? Well, there is a violent uproar but we are not absolutely dominated by it. We are still able to think, to discriminate, and to feel. The purer, subtler, higher activities have not succumbed to fury or to nonsense. Not yet. Books continue to be written and read. It may be more difficult to reach the whirling mind of a modern reader but it is possible to cut through the noise and reach the quiet zone. In the quiet zone we may find that he is devoutly waiting for us. When complications increase, the desire for essentials increases too. The unending cycle of crises that began with the First World War has formed a kind of person, one who has lived through terrible, strange things, and in whom there is an observable shrinkage of prejudices, a casting off of disappointing ideologies, an ability to live with many kinds of madness, an immense desire for certain durable human goods – truth, for instance, or freedom, or wisdom. I don’t think I am exaggerating; there is plenty of evidence for this. Disintegration? Well, yes. Much is disintegrating but we are experiencing also an odd kind of refining process.’1

 

 

This paragraph of wisdom was gleaned from Saul Bellow’s lecture in 1976, and encapsulates some of my recent thinking.  I both applaud and deplore the recent breakthrough in technology , bringing the immediate and the virtual to practically every home or person via internet and smartphone.  I am aware of the changing awareness it provides me – the gratification of satisfying curiosity quickly and easily , whilst simultaneously eroding my capacity for concentration. I am a gadfly, settling momentarily for bites of informative , entertaining distraction rather than entering into a thorough investigation of one area of interest.  That is possibly character led – I have never been the model for applied intelligence, but even within my own modest parameters I feel an unease at how I limit my attention to reading matter in particular. And yet the other side of the coin gleams attractively – the range of newly discovered channels of information is thrilling. I watch video of life on earth previously undreamt of in even my mother’s generation, introducing whole facets of human and other strands of life that can only inspire further exploration and discovery. The vast multitude of available paths is itself discombobulating – sometimes paralysing. It can be both inspiring and frightening, to be open to so much possiblility can overwhelm and freeze , halting the desire to progress. So I cheer the idea  of Bellow’s ‘quiet zone’.  I know that we are so much further on too, than when this was written- forty years is after all, a lifetime to some. We are experiencing a world in flux -it has ever been thus – and still we need to champion the Arts as a way of life, one which explores, enhances and illuminates the human condition.  It is not only in the world of the novel that the ‘individual’ is petrified – never more than now has our species depended on the interconnectedness and the application of that knowledge of interconnection in order not only to flourish, but to survive , both in a literal and a metaphorical sense.
We grow our technology at a rate that imperils our planet and ourselves. We grow our technology in order to save the planet and ourselves. Both are versions of the same reality. We choose, as individual human beings how to behave, both individually and collectively. Some of us choose our governments to act on our behalf, some are less fortunate, but all of us are responsible for the reality we choose.

Saul Bellow’s lecture discussed the value of literature in exposing the ‘true impressions’ to ourselves.  It is as prescient today as it was then;

‘The value of literature lies in these intermittent “true impressions”. A novel moves back and forth between the world of objects, of actions, of appearances, and that other world from which these “true impressions” come and which moves us to believe that the good we hang onto so tenaciously – in the face of evil, so obstinately – is no illusion.’

It is the artist’s gift to show us what is generally unnoticed by us.

The march of technology will continue to move us through different method of exploring that creative expression and I have no problem with that. When I thought about it, the popular mass of human beings on the planet have not enjoyed the easy access to books for that long, perhaps reading is only part of a creative journey to be taken by a comparative few. Perhaps the experience of being human and expressing paradox and complexity will follow different routes of expression, but express it we must. As Joseph Conrad explained, and Saul Bellow related:’ the novel tells us that for every human being there is a diversity of existences, that the single existence is itself an illusion in part, that these many existences signify something, tend to something, fulfill something; it promises us meaning, harmony and even justice. What Conrad said was true, art attempts to find in the universe, in matter as well as in the facts of life, what is fundamental, enduring, essential.’

The lecture can be read or listened to in full via the  link in the citation.

Citation:

1 ; MLA style: “Saul Bellow – Nobel Lecture”. Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 11 Feb 2016. <http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1976/bellow-lecture.html&gt;

Please do not reuse the images on my site without prior permission.

Let it out

161_6106crop Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, and germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!

[ FOOL:  O nuncle, court holy-water in a dry house is better than this
rain-water out o’ door. Good nuncle, in, and ask thy daughters’ blessing: here’s
a night pities neither wise man nor fool. ]

Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! Spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters:
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children,
You owe me no subscription: then let fall
Your horrible pleasure: here I stand, your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man:
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That have with two pernicious daughters join’d
Your high engender’d battles ‘gainst a head
So old and white as this. O! O! ’tis foul!

A speech from Mr William Shakespeare to vent the spleen.  King Lear was raging at a storm that was reflecting his inner turmoil.  I hate turmoil. And yet is is so much part of being human that who avoids it?

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

A tribute to W.B.Yeats

Sailing to Byzantium facebook2 facebook

I have long loved the poems by the Irish poet W.B.Yeats and had been chewing over the possibility of making one of my hand made books illustrating a portion of his magical output.  I remember my first reading of one of his poems when I was a schoolgirl, and was captivated by the musicality , drawn by the  melancholic undertones which so mirror my own natural character.  He makes the act of yearning beautiful. I do not want to analyse or dissect, I simply want to stand and hear the beauty of the words. I do not know really, much about the man – it will make him too real when his legacy is one of magic and dreamtime.  There is so much reality, and as Eliot said, we really cannot stand too much.

I made this for myself, hoping it would delight others too – if it does then I will make one for you too.

https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/230603270/artistsbook-hand-made-book-coptic-stitch?ref=shop_home_feat_4