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Thank you, Bob

Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first song-writer to receive the world’s most coveted literary award. Wow!

Of course Dylan is not only a song-writer and singer. He has written prose as well as verse, painted, acted, but to my mind beyond all these, been. Dylan has been an amazing force in the cultural life not merely of his native United States, or even the Anglophone world, but every country on earth. More than 50 years since he began to perform, he is still out there – apparently in Las Vegas as I write.

There is a post on this blog about him, and he figures in another, “Fifty years with and without Frank Sinatra.”

It is often said that Dylan’s words are what matter and that he can’t sing. This is, like much else about the man, very unfair. Dylan chooses to sing as he does, and his voice is an effective instrument. True, the words stick with us, but so does the sly, insinuating, intelligent voice that brings them to our ears.

The words do matter. They are important for what they say, and for the devices they use – as a writer, Dylan is a true genius.

But he is much more than that. He has made the words matter by who he is, has opened doors for artists of every stripe, legitimised what was previously unthinkable in popular music but far beyond it.  The huge cultural changes that have taken place in my lifetime have been charted but also partly created by this elusive force for good.

Thank you, Bob.

 

 

 
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Posted by on October 13, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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Fifty years with and without Frank Sinatra

Recently I watched all of a film whose opening scenes I first saw in late summer 1965. Von Ryan’s Express was a Frank Sinatra knock-off of the much more successful and better Great Escape, based on a David Westheimer adventure novel I had read as a teenager. When the film was released I was still immature enough to want to check it out.

Things got in the way. That summer was momentous for the American South, and I’d spent part of it travelling in the region, heading from San Francisco back to my family’s then home near Boston Mass, via civil rights projects before heading to a big rally in Washington. My companions were two Canadian brothers and a young American woman.

We meandered through Texas before heading to Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia to fetch up in a small town in  South Carolina, at a voting registration project – voting legislation had been passed that would change the face of Southern electoral politics. That was fun, if also a bit scary: there were plenty of people not on the roll and getting them onto it at the courthouse to register was the kind of practical politics I admired, that looked to ricochet down the years.

The four of us stayed with a middle-class black family, a bricklayer, his wife and two young sons. The bricklayer had grit; he wasn’t put off by attempts to cow him, and had negotiated an end to segregation of the local cinema. As guests we were offered the opportunity to go to the first integrated screening with the two boys; it was as you will have figured out, the Sinatra epic.

It didn’t go as planned. The theatre management had agreed to the move, and the police notified – they promptly disappeared. But no one had told the crowd, many of them young white men whose attitude was not exactly progressive, and as we took our seats in a row to one side of the theatre the buzz around the hall was ominous.

I had led our group into the row, but this was a bad move on my part as the seat next to the aisle was taken by the younger Canadian. The film was not five minutes in before a burly white youth marched up to him and threatened violence if we didn’t leave. The Canadian got up and we had no choice but to follow – the two boys, not yet teenagers, were exposed. As we filed out of the theatre a group of young white men raged around the hapless manager in the lobby, shouting and gesticulating.

I was ashamed – of them, of our own lack of preparedness, and more.

The boys’ father was undeterred, calmly making plans to force the issue with a police presence next time. We moved on, to make the big rally in Washington, but he was and is a hero in my eyes.

Whether they got to see the rest of the film or not, I didn’t. The film had just introduced Sinatra when we’d been threatened, and it was many years before I caught the last 20 minutes or so on TV in New Zealand where I now live. But I had never seen the whole shebang,till I found a DVD in an op-shop.

Now I’ve seen it – nay more, I own a copy and can watch it as many times as I like.

Was it worth the wait? Half a century of delayed adolescent adventure?

No.

It was, however, worth seeing as a prompt. There is a lot that can be said about the nature of film using Von Ryan’s Express as an exemplar – about the star system, about Hollywood decision-making, about film technique, even about film stock colour palette. Things could be said about Frank Sinatra too – he made at least a few films at the time that could be called left-wing, that were edgy in terms of the formula for a star – in this one, though he is heroic in the “star system” mode, he makes mistakes. His tragic death is kind of pathetic, a crumpled wee corpse on a rail line in Italy – not a sacrifice but just one of those things that happens in war,  grand in one way, trivial in another.

As I have been writing this a link to an interview with Bob Dylan* popped into my email in box on the occasion of his new album, “covers” of material Dylan admires and, as it turns out, songs Sinatra also recorded. Dylan has inspiring and intelligent things to say about “Frank” as he calls him – as a singer, he sang to us rather than at us, Dylan says, and there is certainly something to that. Sinatra was and evidently remains a complex figure in American culture, with a role going even beyond film and music, and it is interesting to see Dylan reaching across a gap between himself and another “Ol’ Blue Eyes”** to find common ground.

Far more could be said about what fifty years have meant to America, to the South, to South Carolina. I don’t imagine there is much heat in going to an integrated screening of a film there nowadays – if there is a theatre in small towns given the impact TV and DVDs have had on the industry. The formalities of voting will be well-entrenched too – from a big deal in 1965 to routine today.

But what the years will have done, in the changes they have wrought to the fabric of American life, must have been much more profound than I can infer from my far-off vantage point. Then, the American South was incredibly poor given that the United States was the wealthiest country in the world. The poor weren’t just black – driving through rural South Carolina past one-room unpainted shacks perched on stilts, dogs, chickens, perhaps pigs sweltering in the humid shade beneath, it was impossible to tell whether a black or white face would push open the tattered screen door to move the flies around. Part of the complexity of racism in the South was the grinding poverty affecting both races that rather than uniting them, kept them apart.

Before I left the US for New Zealand in 1972 I spent more time in the South – mostly in Florida but also in South Carolina. Even a few years showed a sea-change in the way things were done. What was clear, as a black labourer in Florida once told me, was that for many blacks, living there was preferable to the ghettos of the North. He spoke of a man he knew who’d gone North to improve his lot: “He came back South, shut his mouth.” Seeing The Wire, a TV series depicting  ghetto life in Baltimore today, suggests he had a point.

Thanks for reading.

*http://www.aarp.org/entertainment/style-trends/info-2015/bob-dylan-aarp-magazine.html?cid=nl%3A1070415870&utm_medium=email&utm_source=uscolumbia-bobdylan&utm_campaign=email%7C1070415870%7C20150122&utm_content=nllink-3fcdc231-read%20online%20now%20on%20AARP.org

** Yes, both of them

 
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Posted by on January 23, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Dylan

It’s just barely possible that among the far-flung readers of this blog there is at least one person who will see the title of this post and say to her or himself, and silently to me, “You mean Dylan Thomas, do you?”

As the rest of us know – no. The namesake has overtaken the name. He who was once Robert Zimmerman is now, to virtually the entire planet, Bob Dylan, and he is the Dylan.

Dylan’s choice of a new name was geniunely inspired. As with the Welshman, the new Dylan has a way with words, a quickness, that is remarkable – by which I mean sets him apart. But in a career that now spans more than 50 years, he has not just outlasted the poet, but supplanted him.

He came to mind while I was writing my last post, on greatness, as I was dabbling away with  Shakespeare, who was called the spirit of the age. If there is an artist who can earn this rubric in our time, it surely is Dylan.

Dylan’s gift is with words – words in English. But just as Shakespeare has survived translation to be loved and performed in every language, Dylan seems to get beyond the “limitations” of what I say is the world’s most adaptable language. He performs to crowds whose members, for the most part anyway, cannot possibly hope to understand him in his native tongue especially given the nuances each native English speaker often but imagines she or he divines.

There are people who really study Dylan – see the post entitled Something completely different. I am not one of those, and if an expert happens to be reading this, please forgive my failure to be up with the literature. That he attracts not just a devoted following but a coterie of analysts proves he deserves respect in ways other people working in his field do not and never will. They will never be “discovered” to have hidden meanings and artistic qualities previously unknown. Dylan not just now but not far into his career was already heaving with them.

In the 1960s I saw a poster of him that showed just how amazing a man he is: Dylan’s head was portrayed as a tree, with his many influences shown as roots: rock and roll, blues musicians like Blind Lemon Jefferson, country stars like Hank Williams, writers like Allen Ginsberg and many, many others, while in the leaves sat the birds he’s influenced, musicians like The Byrds, but many others. Somehow Dylan has managed to speak to so many people in so many different ways, that today, if the poster were done again, the tree’s roots would extend to take over the biggest yard in the world, and the birds would number in the thousands, and in the grandest sense, the tens of millions: Dylan’s influence goes far beyond other artists. He has, truly, changed the way we see the world.

I’m one of those twittering in the foliage, a tiny sparrow trying to escape the notice of the big predators, the eagles and vultures and owls…all the same, I’ve got my perch, and till I’m thrust off it, I’ll cling there, grimly…chirp when I feel in the mood…

Non-admirers like to knock Dylan. They complain about the simplicity of his music,  the rawness of his voice, even his songs’ “tunelessness”. They see him not as an artist but an entertainer, and as an entertainer, for them he is so lacking in “talent” that their wonder is that he is such a star.

He is a star. But what he is beyond that, is a true artist. Like “greatness” that was the subject of my last post – and that partly provoked this one – “artist” is a word that needs some defining, and like greatness too, it’s not so easy as one might imagine. “Art” has a lot of nuances, and can be applied in many creative fields, from music to painting to literature, between and beyond. I don’t want to pretend to be an expert in this, but to me great artists  creatively interpret the world in a way that changes it and changes the way we see the world – humanity in principle and if not universally typically personally in practice. No person, given the opportunity to listen to the popular music of the second half of the twentieth century, and to be further educated in it, would seriously be able to deny on the basis of this definition that Dylan is a great artist. What is acceptable, what can be stylish, how music can be performed, what sort of lyrics can be written – in all these, and beyond, Dylan has had a phenomenal impact, and it goes beyond music.

Dylan speaks to  us in different ways, and some of those are perhaps unique in modern music – even all music. To me the most important is not what is easily understood, but what is difficult or even impossible to understand clearly. This is meant – fundamental to Dylan’s technique.

For example, the song All Along the Watchtower. Dear reader, you can look this up for yourself on the internet if you don’t know the words. This was released on an album back in the days when albums were the de rigeur  and singles came off them rather than the other way around – Jimi Hendrix released a single of it. A review I read of this at the time said that Hendrix probably understood this song not at all but that it didn’t matter as he’d done a good job: Hendrix was a brilliant guitarist who somehow made the song his own.

We weren’t meant to understand that song, or many others Dylan has written over the years, in any kind of objective sense, in the sense of “this is what this song is about for everybody“, or that is what I say. Dylan’s genius was and is to write songs whose meaning is clear to each of us in a very personal way. We take deliberately ambiguous clues and give them sense in the contexts of our own understanding in our own lives.

Some songs are more clear than others but underlying the best of them, according to me, is this resonant ambiguity. “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is – do you Mr Jones?” may have seemed a put down of the straight man in a wild hip party of the 60s, but who does not have something of the poor confused Jones in him? “You see somebody naked and you say ‘who is that man’? You try so hard but you just don’t understand what you will say when you get home…”

Some critics I’ve read have complained about this obscurity; they want a clarity that it seems to me would rob Dylan of his most significant contribution to modern art: he speaks to each of us individually. Our Dylan is OUR DYLAN and no one else’s. That he manages to do this, in often extremely sly and incredibly complex ways, is wonderful.

Here’s another example, that I like especially for its transformation in the course of a song from “You’re an idiot” to “We’re all idiots” but which begins “Some one’s got it in for me – they’re planting stories in the press. Whoever it is I wish they’d cut it out quick, but when they will, I can only guess. They say I shot a man named Grey, and took his wife to Italy. She inherited a million bucks, and when she died it came to me. I can’t help it if I’m lucky.”

The tag line to this verse renders everything that came before it even more ambiguous than it was till it got there. Did the singer, who we know is not “Bob Dylan” but the narrator of a song which is being sung by Bob Dylan (who also happened to write the song), shoot the man named Grey? The stories in the press say so but that doesn’t make it so. It is strongly implied but not absolutely certain that he did go to Italy with Grey’s wife, and that she died and he got the million bucks she inherited from her husband. Did he also do in Grey’s wife? He can’t help it if he’s lucky…what is true and not true lives in a realm of possibility that can make sense to each of us quite differently, and for some, like me, there are no final answers – the very uncertainty lingers and is appealing in its uncertainty.

This is just one verse in one song. There are so many songs, and so many ways Dylan has incorporated this teasing, elusive sensibility into them, that his fans all have their favourites and their own ways of understanding. For many years, my favourite song of all by any musician was Positively Fourth Street, whose only positive feature was the word in the title. Arguably, it is the nastiest song ever written by anyone, and I loved it precisely for that. I have seen an interpretation that says it is an attack on his public, though I personally find that hard to believe – it just seems a put down on the New York scene in-groupies who snubbed him early in his career but suddenly wanted to be his mate when he’d made it – “when I was down, you just stood there grinning”. These people exist and I’ve seen them at work in other areas of life. Dylan’s rejection of the proffered friendship of those who’d once laughed at his failure is a testament to the power of hurt. When it’s his turn to twist the knife, he doesn’t pass it up…”I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes, and just for that one moment I could be you; yes, I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes: you’d know what a drag it is to see you.”

Nowadays I still listen in my head to those words, and they still mean something to me, but I no longer regard it as the best song ever written. My Dylan, the Dylan who is in my heart and mind, has gone past that, as have I.

For a long time – about thirty years – I went away from Dylan. I didn’t listen and didn’t care that I didn’t. Jazz and classical consumed my musical interests, and Dylan fell away for me after Blood on the Tracks and Desire. These days I still listen to very little popular music.

But about five years ago I happened to pick up a CD by him at a garage sale in Wellington, New Zealand, Love and Theft, made early in the present century. It was and is brilliant. His voice has become more expressive and jazz inflected – the “theft” in the title could be taken to refer to singing like Fats Waller, which he does beautifully…but then the opening to another song is ah, Creedence’s Proud Mary…Bob and I were back together after all that time, all our different adventures…my Dylan…

Does Dylan affect my writing? Yes, but not in the sense that another writer might do, like Celine or Shakespeare, but nonetheless very definitely. If readers see in my writing some of the deliberately ambiguous prose I find in Dylan’s verses (and in the short pieces of prose I’ve read by him), that could very well be written from my perch in his greenery. Whether he is aware of Celine or not – I can’t imagine he isn’t as he palled around with some of the beat poets for a while, including Allen Ginsberg – his explosive lyrics show his sensibility has passed that way at some stage.

Most importantly for me in my writing, I hope through a kind of spareness to get something of the personal into my books that Dylan gets into his songs. It would thrill me if readers “filled in the gaps” as I would like them to and make my novels theirs. I don’t think I really succeed with this, or not as much as I would like, but when I am writing, it is an aim, always.

Recently I was watching Dylan sing in Hyde Park on YouTube…he sang among other songs, Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues (“when you’re lost in the rain in Juarez and it’s Easter time too/ and your gravity fails and negativity don’t pull you through”)…he had a good band including Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones and Al Kooper who was on his revolutionary album Highway 61 Revisited, and he showed he could sing and play the guitar. The clip was put up on YouTube by a German who called himself Ret Marut, with a message in German and a line in English wishing him well. Ret Marut was the early pen name of the man who later called himself B Traven, who is the subject of an earlier post. It seems there is a line of communication that runs through Dylan, a community of interest, that I share not only with this great musician, people I don’t know and never will, but now know exist. Nice meeting you, “Ret”.

 
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Posted by on September 22, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Greatness

Trying to get Celine out of my system is a bit like having a stubborn virus that just won’t give up, that keeps coming back and annoying you just at the time you thought you’d finally got over it. Lugging that madman around in my spiritual kitbag is a nuisance I can assure you, dear reader. While I am trying to find some other little nugget of wisdom to guide me through my day and my life, out pops the crooked grin of that very, very crooked fellow leering up at me…

“Will you go away, please?”

“No.”

“Well, I am just going to ignore you, you dirty old man.”

“I am the elephant and you are the gnat. Here is a jar of vaseline to help you through the experience.”*

“Thanks ever so much.”

“The pleasure is all mine.”

“I will come back to you, later…when I’ve done this, and I’ve got some time to kill.”

“You always will…”

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about “greatness” – in literature, and any other way. Partly this was prompted by a remark in a comment on one of the posts to this blog that Shakespeare is “over-rated”. That made me think. To me Shakespeare is the greatest writer ever, and I have felt blessed by the fact that he wrote in my native language. Unlike Celine, who wrote in a French argot already passe by the time he picked up his pen, Shakespeare’s English is recognisably the English we use today.

That’s misleading, and it matters both for our appreciation of the man and his work, and for our understanding of what greatness is and is not. Shakespeare’s English is recognisably but far from precisely our English. Language changes over time in lots of ways – in the words we use, in their meaning, in grammar and punctuation when writing, in accent and more when speaking. Chaucer’s “English” is unintelligible to us today, or nearly so – and may have even been to Shakespeare, who was born less than two hundred years after Chaucer’s death.** So it is quite natural that about four hundred years after Shakespeare shuffled off, his English is quite a bit different from ours. Most editions of Shakespeare “modernise” the poems and plays, and the skeptic is not wrong to say this opens a door to changing our perceptions in ways that editors may not have intended and that would astonish any Elizabethan or Jacobean including the Bard himself.

But the fact is that we want to understand Shakespeare, which is why we go to all that trouble to make him “accessible”. And we want to, because something in his work has an appeal that goes beyond even its limitations, whether of language, or other aspects of his work.

Here is a very current example that has been in the news in the past week. In Leicester, in England, the bones of the last Plantagenet English king, Richard III, have apparently been discovered under a carpark. Richard was the subject of the concluding part of a cycle of eight plays by Shakespeare***, and his character all these years later is indelibly associated with the play. We do not know whether the real Richard was all that phyically deformed as the hunchback Shakespeare made him; if he was really so evil as all that; if he caused the two young boys under his protection in the tower of London to be murdered; if he had his brother “drowned in a butt of malmsey”…there are many legends surrounding this last Plantagenet whose death in battle marked the end of the Wars of the Roses, the beginning of the Tudor dynasty and symbolically the English renaissance.

Whatever the truth, Shakespeare’s version is OUR version. He has so coloured our imaginations that no “real” Richard can ever crawl out from under the blanket of evil tossed so artfully onto his crumpled corpse.

Richard ruled for only a few years; Macbeth, whose reputation Shakespeare similarly set in concrete forever, ruled for 17. The evidence for Macbeth’s villainy is dubious, and for Duncan’s saintliness, equally suspect.

We can know that Shakespeare had his own reasons for casting these two monarchs as evil. Richard was head of the competing house of York for the crown of England held by the Tudors who ruled for much of Shakespeare’s life in the person of Elizabeth I. Macbeth was the loser of a struggle for the Scottish throne, whose victor’s family came to London to rule Scotland and England as James I for the last fifteen or so years of Shakespeare’s life. Shakespeare plainly had very strong  reasons for writing these plays the way he did. The politics of his time made pleasing the powers that be important for many reasons including life and limb. Yet knowing this doesn’t reduce our appreciation of Shakespeare; if anything, it enlarges it, or so say I. We can be aware of the dodgy history and enjoy the portraits of Richard and Macbeth even more: these are universal, they reach from some cultural substrate so deep that they touch and affect all who encounter them. If Richard wasn’t the evil man Shakespeare made him, some man, somewhere, was, is; we feel it in our souls.

Shakespeare’s contemporaries knew he was “one out of the box”, a unique sensibility whose writing would last and last. Jonson’s remark that he was “for all time” was a summary of what others thought. There was something, that is to say, that in his own time set him apart from the other poets and playwrights whose work crowded bookstalls and the theatres: Marlowe, Jonson, Chapman, Middleton, Beaumont and Fletcher, Webster and Tourneur…these were writers who were gifted, who jostled for attention with Shakespeare, who knew him, collaborated with him, and competed with him for attention, favours, patronage, audiences…Scholars and people who are really into it – yes, that includes me – read these others today, but talented though they were, they did not match the Bard, they knew it, and so do we.

This case, for Shakespeare, only puts flesh on bones that are as yet unidentified. If we say that Shakespeare was a great writer, what are we then saying? What is this “greatness”, not only of Shakespeare but of any person we call great, of any writer?

In classical times – meaning the Greeks and Romans – if anyone ever thought that a writer, or indeed a philosopher, would be considered “great”, I haven’t known about it. Then greatness was pretty much military, and was about “honour” – dying in battle, even in a lost cause, that was great. And it was desirable…die in battle, conquer the known world, and your memory would live forever. Writing a dialogue on love that would be read two thousand five hundred years later, or a play about the love of a wife for her husband so fine and noble she would die for him, that was not great, though the gesture was.

In classical times the literature that remains to us shows many men aiming for greatness, and by it they meant a lasting memory in the world at large. Over time, that basic idea has stayed but we now  pass out the gong*** of greatness rather more broadly, and more easily, as we do “genius”. As one of the characters in my novel Evilheart says of contemporary Germany, “There are so many geniuses!” Greatness in the arts is a given; great painters, poets, sculptors, film-makers, musicians, composers, and writers surround us with a healthy regard for their talents.

Yet if we take “greatness” to mean “lasting” and “popular” there aren’t that many great writers, and the crowded landscape of 20th century literary greatness bestowed by critics acting as self-appointed holders of the right to invoke “common consent” is likely to be seriously depopulated by the time the 22th century rolls around.

Does it matter? Well, I reckon it does matter. We need – and want – scales to judge merit, and “greatness” just happens to be at the top of the scale. Yet we discover the acme too easily.

Sadly, the top end is getting crowded by the new technology combined with human nature, and the market. Evilheart was in fact prescient – there are so many geniuses! E-publishing – like this post you are reading – means anyone who can string two words together can write a book, and that probably means, write a novel. And nearly everyone has friends and they will review the novel and give it five stars or whatever the maximum is, and shazam! another great writer. You can’t go higher than the highest can you? This phenomenon has become a problem in that anyone who might review books on a more sensible basis risks hurting the author because so much lesser quality work gets the highest mark possible. My way of dealing with this is to give five stars to anything I like, and not review anything I don’t.

Greatness as I’ve already said in literature is about “lasting” and “popular”. “Lasting” implies value – that it is worth something, so people keep reading and/or seeing it in the case of say drama. And “popular”, when combined with “lasting”, implies something more too – that the value that is there is accessible. So a great writer reaches us, the common herd, and affects us, reveals things about reality, about life, about what is important, that we had not realised, and goes on doing it. When Ben Jonson wrote of Shakespeare that he was not merely of the age but for all time, he was saying that – that Shakespeare had somehow penetrated the mysteries of life and come back to tell us about them, and that repeated exposure to him yields more clues to the mysteries.

We don’t know much about Shakespeare the man. His life story isn’t a complete blank, but the “facts” don’t really yield much about what kind of person he was. Jonson – again – referred to him as “gentle” in such a way as to imply he was known as a very decent chap. But that’s about it. What we get about him from his plays  is his sensibility, his way of looking at the world, through the language he uses, the plots he chooses, the heroes and villains he uses and abuses.

Yet accessibility has its limits as a definition of greatness. Shakespeare put bums on seats in the theatres – he had something for everyone. But part of that something was a secret, coded message or messages that only initiates in the cults of the time Shakespeare was presumably part of or at least aware of would understand. Ted Hughes wrote memorably of this in his amazing book Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, but there are other takes on it: that he was a closet Catholic the most prominent, but also a “Rosicrucian” British imperialist, or a member of pagan cults sprung up as a result of the translation of the great Greek writers…People argue about this now, but what seems to me to be important is that Shakespeare delivered even on this level, without leaving the “groundlings” who just wanted a good story, out of the loop. It’s all there for you – you don’t have to do anything but sit back and enjoy the most superficial story unfold before you. But if you want more, there is more – always. The measure of Shakespeare’s greatness is that there is always more; he was not just “the spirit of the age” but also “for all time”.

There have been other writers who captured the flavour of their time, and beyond, people recognised at the time: Balzac in France, Mark Twain in the United States (“the Lincoln of our literature” another writer called him, and truly), Dickens in England…Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy in Russia. Others were perhaps less lauded in their own lifetimes, their worth discovered only later, sometimes much later.

In our time? Perhaps I am jaded, but I don’t see many novelists who have emerged since 1945 with that sort of cachet apart from two of the “Celinists” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Gunter Grass – and Solzhenitsyn. With the 20th century barely receding over the hills at the back of our consciousness, the writers who were lionised in their own times have for the most part fallen away. In my mind there are few post-war writers, in any language, who will be read in a hundred years. Yet at the same time, we find five star greatness virtually everywhere we look.

This evident contradiction is partly, I think, because of cultural changes. Poetry, for example, has become rarified, inaccessible to most people. The truly popular “poets” work as musicians, and it is likely that Bob Dylan’s work and possibly Leonard Cohen’s will be listened to for generations. Dylan is the one artist of our time whose work has something of the cachet that Shakespeare had in his time – someone who is recognised by his peers, writers and public, as expressing “the soul of the age”. Yet Dylan, whose art is partly based on a conscious artlessness that throws his words into focus, is often treated with contempt by the “educated” and ignorant.

I know that my books aren’t “great” and I don’t think that in two hundred years, as Celine was so certain he would be, I’ll be “helping the kids through high school”.  My aims in writing are to entertain and to provoke interest – in Shakespeare and  Dostoevsky among others, but in lesser known characters I think people might get something from: Berdyaev, Giordano Bruno, the whole renaissance “white magic” movement. There’s moral force, too, of a sort, and my interest in evil, what it is and what it means – the obverse of greatness.

My wee list of great writers troubles me – so many of them had personal foibles that set them apart too. Celine and Dostoevsky were virulent anti-semites, and Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice plays to anti-semitism too. Tolstoy was more than a bit of a nut. Solzhenitsyn had, shall we say, very unusual political views of the “Great Russian prejudice” variety. Balzac? A reactionary. Twain and Euripides seemed on the side of the angels – unless you count Twain’s Mysterious Stranger…it does matter: if we say that greatness involves deep penetration into the “meaning of life”, how can we square the wisdom with the weirdness?

We are back to the beginning and that ratbag in my kitbag.

“In two hundred years I’ll be helping the kids through high school.”^^

This is the first post I have written on wordpress but the twentieth of this blog, which is mainly about writing. The posts will be copied back to Goodreads, or they’re meant to be. But if they aren’t I will copy them myself.

You are a great reader if you’ve got here – ha! How many stars would you like? Forty-three? It’s a good number – take them. You can get them in any shape you like from the star shop, spray paint them new colours if you like, and stick them  in delicate patterns on the door of the fridge.

Thanks for reading.

*This is a joke deriving from Celine’s so-called pamphlet that is the subject of my previous post.

**Shakespeare wrote a play, Troilus and Cressida, that was also the subject of a long narrative poem by Chaucer, so it is assumed the playwright was familiar with the poet. But there is little if anything of Chaucer in Shakespeare’s version.

***gong: British empire expression for award.

^Machiavelli through his analysis of statecraft, The Prince, had become a synonym for evil by Shakespeare’s time – he died about forty years before Shakespeare was born – and he is referred to in that way by the Bard on a few occasions. But the Italian was also a poet and playwright and arguably wrote the first renaissance play, Mandragola, and a second, Clizia. Both are sex farces. Machiavelli was not the great writer that Shakespeare was, but then neither was anyone else.

^^From Celine’s Rigodon, his last book.

 
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Posted by on September 15, 2012 in influences, random chatter

 

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