Tag Archives: Writing

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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Notes to Self

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The guy who wrote the original did so in Greek, but was actually an intellectual Roman who was to govern Rome after succeeding the Emperor Antoninus Pius, spending a couple of decades trying to placate the Senate and put down minor rebellions. It was some time ago.

Marcus Aurelius lives long in the mind – this is a book that belongs in the bookshelves of the great and the good throughout history – it has shaped the thinking of men. And yet it was not written for publication – it was written as an ongoing discourse with himself as to how to live a life, how to wrestle with the challenges that being human brings , a ‘design for living’. He is setting  out his set of rules, quite unaware that it would become a key text in later attempting to understand the Roman Stoic philosophy.

 

I am fascinated how threads of understanding weave themselves through history – occurring separately to thinkers from disparate cultures and times – and how those threads resonate generations later, making a fascinating complexity of human thought spinning itself through time and place.

I am reminded of these words,

Knee-deep in the cosmic overwhelm, I’m stricken

by the ricochet wonder of it all: the plain

everythingness of everything, in cahoots

with the everythingness of everything else.       Carl Sagan  ‘Diffraction’

and from Edgar Allen Poe

 “that space and duration are one”

‘ that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.’

art

“I know that character exists from the outside alone. I know that inside the body there’s just temperature. So how do you build your soul?”      Sheila Heti

We all start from this premise I suspect; exactly how do we experience what it means to be human? As opposed to being merely a productive unit, or animal or more commonly simply maintaining a sustained presence on the planet without falling into penury, debt or criminal behaviour.

I shall make this easier for you, at least in defining how the battle may be fought.  Read. Read more.  Read widely. Read thoughtfully. Did I mention reading?  Writers and artists have been mining their own characters and talents in attempting to illuminate the same question.  Some have come up with diamonds, others with less dazzling results.  Joseph Conrad wrote fabulous stories that were underpinned with a deep understanding of the human condition, and an observation of human activity that created classics.  Here he is on his own art,

But the artist appeals to that part of our being which is not dependent on wisdom; to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition — and, therefore, more permanently enduring. He speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation — and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity — the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.-

–My task which I am trying to achieve is, 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.

‘ that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.’   That is a phrase that sends shudders down my spine.

David Foster Wallace is hailed as the writer of and for his generation,- his biographer D.T.Max writes ‘The only thing that seems clear from this novel ( ‘The Pale King) is that boredom is more than a harmless discomfort. The fight against it expresses a need to secure the vitality of the self at all costs.’

It is an irony that Wallace’s writing is  widely requoted as though he was the purveyor of Truth and Wisdom, mainly since his speech in 2005,“This is Water”, which he delivered as the Kenyon College Commencement address . In the speech, Wallace advises the undergraduates that they can choose how to make meaning out of their lives. In the tides of boredom that wash over us in our daily lives, Wallace declares that anyone who harnesses the power of his own attention is king:

“You can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness.”

Wallace took to literature in an attempt to grasp hold of his own life, his depressive episodes.  The current trend to read his novels as paths of truth is to simplify the man and the writer, but readers read, and writers write. I like this short passage by Wallace himself, on writing, Wallace tells Larry McCaffery in Conversations with David Foster Wallace. “In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.”

 

D. T. Max
EVERY LOVE STORY IS A GHOST STORY
A Life of David Foster Wallace
352pp. Granta Books. £20.