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Thomas Bernhard anew

Hello there. It is a crisp and windy morning in the quaint village near the Ruahine range in New Zealand where I am presently parked in a tranquil cottage not far from the railway line. That may seem a contradiction as the wagons roll along the track, but it isn’t – the noise, even at 3 AM, is not at all irritating.

For months I have been working through the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard’s memoir Gathering evidence, the second of his non-fiction books I have read. That makes it sound like a chore, which in a sense it has been – I am not the only one to complain about the small type of the edition I bought that has made the physical act of reading literally tiresome. This is especially true as one of Bernhard’s  stylistic trademarks is not to have paragraphs. He starts, and keeps going. . .and going. . .and going. The writing is however a pleasure in itself; he is arguably the best post-war writer of all I have read. That’s saying a great deal when you consider wonderful stylists like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Gunter Grass, but for me it is true.

Even though I enjoy and admire his fiction, Bernhard’s memoirs show him at his finest. There is a gritty integrity to Gathering evidence that for any writer is a challenge, as there also is to his shorter piece, Wittgenstein’s nephew. Bernhard did not flinch from the world he saw, experienced and depicted, and did not hesitate to draw tough-minded conclusions plainly if without rancour.

Celine, whose approach and style must have influenced Bernhard, wrote that “first  you’ve got to pay for it – then you can use it”. Celine’s point was about fiction, made up stories that the French writer argued needed to be based on personal experience. In Celine’s case this experience was often harrowing, if self-inflicted. Bernhard started off badly, an unwanted child born out of wedlock in the Netherlands where his mother had gone to give shameful birth, and made his mark through tough-minded assertiveness. He paid for it and paid for it, then mined it, magically transforming the dross of an often terrible youth into gold.

There were differences between Celine and Bernhard. Celine’s anti-Semitism drove him unwillingly into the arms of France’s Vichy collaborators in their outpost in Sigmaringen, Germany, while Bernhard, who began his adult life as a reporter for a socialist newspaper, turned his most cruel microscope on Austria’s Catholics and Nazis and later on the poseurs of a rekindled Austrian cultural renaissance. Yet both were anarchists. . .and felt deeply for those whose lives were blighted by the system that surrounded and shaped them.

What makes them cousins of the pen beyond perspective, however, is style. Bernhard took his cue from an apparently unending scroll while Celine famously used the ellipse, but for both, the effect was the appearance of raving that is anything but. A film of a Billy Connolly routine shows the wonder comic’s style was very much like that. Connolly tells stories, seems to wander and then comes back to the beginning to make his point. “You thought I had forgotten, hadn’t you?” he scolded his audience. “This is my technique!” Just so. What seems to effortless and even artless, is high art.

Bernhard wrote the five parts of his memoir in a certain order, ending them with his earliest experiences. The translator of Gathering evidence (or perhaps an editor) chose to put the last one first, to keep the memoir chronological. I should have skipped that one, and read it last as was Bernhard’s intention. I understand what he was doing, and I may read that section again.

 
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Posted by on March 27, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

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Saint Jane

Hello there. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Life can interfere with my very best and well-meant plans, and such it is now. Two posts I have been thinking of writing remain figments of my admittedly feverish imagination. Meanwhile, I have had other things to do as well as think about.

These nettlesome intrusions have not prevented at least a tiny amount of effort on my part to become educated. I really want to do this! One of my many lacunae is 19th century English literature. Writers as diverse as Trollope and the Brontes are totally foreign to me, while Dickens is a chance acquaintance. My excuse for ignorance is that I am still, after more decades than I wish to concede, enthralled by the English renaissance, the renaissance full stop, and the classics. Euripides! Wow! That fellow strode the boards ahead of all others for about 2000 years. Two thousand! He had competition too – Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Sophocles among the Greeks, Plautus, Terence and other Romans. . .There is a post in this blog on the man, though perhaps not a very good one, but if you have not tried The Trojan Women, or The Medea, or the Iphigenia plays, or Alcestis* you too need some larnin’. Honest. Anyway I haven’t finished with the oldies, and keep telling myself to work up to the moderns. . .the 18th and 19th century moderns. Sheridan I know but. . .

So lately I have been schooling myself in the scandal of Jane Austen. When a film of Pride and Prejudice came out, I read the novel and was mightily impressed. It seemed to me – and still seems – that Austen showed herself to be the first truly modern writer. Her airy and concise style and her ironic detachment from the characters she created, made for a very good read. Her style stands up very well against later, more florid writers like Balzac, whatever their respective intellectual grunt

Lately I’ve decided to try some of her other works. Emma put me off and so did Northanger Abbey but I have got through Mansfield Park, Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility.

Were my first impressions^ justified? Well, yes. Austen wrote in a genre peopled by thousands perhaps and stands out. She still seems to me a pathbreaker. Naturally pathbreakers are riddled with faults – look at my books!**  The wrinkles get ironed out by those who follow and it can be easy to criticise in that patronising way writers  employ. Mark Twain ridiculed her though it is unclear if he really meant it***.

Certainly in a writing sense she does not conform to the rules of our time, and probably not of her own. As happened then, her books would likely be spiked if submitted to publishers today: on a superficial level they “tell, not show” well past a fault. To give a ccntrasting example, one of Graham Greene’s later novels, Monsignor Quixote, begins as a Spanish priest picks up a Vatican bigwig whose car has broken down, and while  waiting for it to be repaired, takes the man to his home for lunch. The larder is bare apart from horsemeat, and the priest tells his cook/housekeeper to serve it up.

The Vatican fellow eats the meat with gusto, and several weeks later the priest discovers he has been made a monsignor.

This is an example of “show, don’t tell”. Greene never tells the reader that the reason for this award is that the priest showed his humility in serving what he had to his guest.

Austen does this too, but it is harder to decide when she really means it. She tells, and tells, and tells so often that any attempt to say what she “really meant” otherwise inevitably runs into opposition. What rescues her for “modernity” is the ironic detachment she shows in the telling. She mocks and scorns characters, even nice ones.

There are some negatives; there always are. Reading her books one after the other shows a sameness that is pretty much a yawn really. Mansfield Park, her most controversial, is also her most overwritten – it is perhaps twice as long as it needed to be. Sense and Sensibility could also do with a trim. Nonetheless there are sparkling dialogues well worth the effort, and Sense especially, after a slow start, is a real ripper for the most part, before stuttering to a bizarre and unbelievable conclusion that had me thinking, Nonsense and insensibility.

In Mansfield Park and Sense Austen addresses the reader directly in what today might be seen as experimental and to her might have been an attempt at seeming to be reading to her audience, as she read her books to her family. It’s nice.

Yet to me the most attractive and intriguing feature of her style is a willingness to be really mean. Here for example, the Middletons, Sir John and his Lady, who have gone out of their way to provide the heroines a place to live, and want them to come visit, often:

“. . .they kept more company of every kind than any other family in the neighbourhood. It was necessary for the happiness of both; for however dissimilar in temper and outward behaviour, they strongly resembled each other in that total want of talent and taste which confined their employments, unconnected as such which society produced, within a very narrow compass. Sir John was a sportsman, Lady Middleton a mother. He hunted and shot, and she humoured her children, and these were their only resources.”

Well!

Lady Middleton gets both barrels a short time later, as the Dashwoods (heroines) visit the Middleton mansion:

“There was nothing in any of the party which could recommend them as companions to the Dashwoods, but the cold insipidity of Lady Middleton was so particularly repulsive, that in comparison of it the gravity of Colonel Brandon, and even the boisterous mirth of Sir John and his mother-in-law was interesting.”

Austen’s remarks are often said to be “gently mocking”.

Readers of this blog know that I am partial to a French writer, Celine, who was amazing for his insights and appalling for his beliefs. Celine got his shrewd perceptions of humanity from what are sometimes styled “petit bourgeois” origins. His family had a lace shop in an arcade in Paris and his father, who worked for an insurance company, was a wannabe all his life. Their son was sent to Germany and to England to learn the local language in a strategy designed to make him successful at business. Instead, he became a doctor and one of the most notorious authors of the 20th century.

Celine’s nightmare visions of the whole of humanity sprang from hatred and envy of those above, and fear and loathing of those below. Always on the edge of being tipped into the latter, careful not to offend and desirous of joining the former, the precarious existence of the petit bourgeois in early 19th century England is strikingly brought to life by Austen. Her main characters are genteel poor single women seeking to marry a man at least able to look after them, and having very little alternative. Austen’s caustic eye never fails to judge the landed wealthy and those associated with them, finding the good among them much more rare than the morally bankrupt. These last attain their status in a plethora of ways, from fornication, adultery, and blithe materialism  to profiting from slavery. Their code of values reeks of hypocritical sanctimony.

Much of the talk in Austen’s books revolves around money. No man is really eligible for marriage without a good amount of it, usually as interest income from some principal, and the fortunate woman endowed with the same is much admired and desired. So-and-so is “worth 20,000” or “has an income of 2,000 a year” is rating talk among would-be brides and their advisors.

Despite this trenchant critique of the English moneyed and landed classes of her time, Austen’s books have happy endings. The good do not die though they may get sick. They are rejected, but are lucky in it. They marry the right fellow after all. . .their morality sees them through.

Nice, innit? Austen thus ends up supporting and bolstering the society she otherwise ridicules. There is no hint that those caught up in the forms of servitude of the vast mass of English people – as servants in homes, workers in factories or fields, or desperate paupers – are anything but jolly glad to be alive; for the most part, they do not even exist. In Sense for example, the lovely widow Mrs Jennings takes two unmarried sisters from their country cottage to her home in London. They arrive, and dinner is served two hours later. Mrs Jennings has been in the country for quite some time, and whoever cooked the meal was.  . .was. . .was. . .doing what while she was away? The widow tries to find employment for a sister of one of her staff, giving her a glowing reference (as she does). That’s about it.

Throughout her books, things get done by this faceless mass, who when they are seen at all seem overjoyed to serve. Horses are fed and retrieved, coaches are driven, washing is washed, needlework needled, gardens are dug and maintained, entire villages belonging to the gentry are peopled, their tithes providing income for the lesser sons of the manse who get a “living” from preaching the virtues of stoic acceptance, or so one supposes.

As a backdrop, as the stuff of her narratives, then, “the system” of Austen’s novels stinks. The beneficiaries of its hypocritical values are almost universally excruciatingly  unworthy to receive its largesse. The exceptions cannot prove the rule. And yet – one and all, happy endings. The virtuous women who have resisted the evil that surround them do find the honorable man whose honesty and integrity saves them, and by implication, the world.

This is not a contradiction Austen can escape really. Yet her many admirers wish her perfect in every way, and flay any brave enough to think otherwise.

Of course the critics can get it wrong. Edward Said famously excoriated Austen’s “failure” to condemn slavery and the society it enriched, yet at least arguably Austen (who was known to oppose slavery) was showing in Mansfield Park that the slave-owning Bertram family whose estate owes its wealth and family its luxury to slave holdings in the West Indies was morally ruined by it. The heroine, Fanny Price, queries the patriarch Sir Thomas Bertram, about it, but receives no answer. It is not what is said by Austen that matters, but what happens – the family of four children corrupted by their ease and its source. The oldest son nearly dies and is a profligate wastrel; the two daughters are immoral quasi trollops, one eloping and the other running away from her husband with a man who had been unsuccessfully pursuing Fanny. Only the fourth, who escapes the clutches of an unworthy but wealthy woman, has the moral strength one can admire.

To my mind, that’s what counts. Wicked wealth has wicked consequences, yeah? Yeah. Showing not telling.

Austen’s reputation can need rescuing from her fans, too. Also in Mansfield Park is the single bawdy remark in the Austen “canon”. It is disputed.

Mary Crawford and her brother Henry come to stay in the parsonage of the Bertram estate. They had been living with their retired admiral uncle but he installed a mistress in his home after his wife died and it was no longer seemly for respectable people to stay. Of course not!

Mary and the second son of the family, Edmund, flirt. She is worldly where he is not, having been in company of seafaring men who evidently have very different ideas about what is acceptable discourse, and she tells Edmund so in the following passage:

Of various admirals, I could tell you a great deal; of them and their flags, and the gradation of their pay, and their bickerings and jealousies.  But in general, I can assure you that they are all passed over, and all very ill used.  Certainly, my home at my uncle’s brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals.  Of Rears and Vices, I saw enough.  Now, do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.

This is a very clever way of showing worldliness. Mary shows that she knows what “rears and vices” together mean while giving herself the ability to deny it. A surprising number of attempts to exonerate Austen (and in the process Mary) by Austenphiles seems to me to fail, though it is true that it is easy to be anachronistic. But hey – in this case, it’s what it says on the tin.

Austen puritans allege that their darling was highly moral and would not have written this with sexual intent. One counter explanation is that it refers to flogging, because buggery was a capital offence at the time, with more hangings for it than murders in the navy, while flogging was legal.

That won’t wash really. If flogging was meant, why was it a vice instead of a punishment? Unless. . .but that would never do. And if there were more hangings for buggery than murder, it just might be because there was rather a lot of it about. It would certainly be the occasion of jokes then as now. Austen had relations who were admirals and may be assumed to have a good knowledge of salty talk. She does not shy in Mansfield Park from writing of adultery, or in Sense and Sensibility of fornication.

And her purpose in this passage is to show a low character as Mary turns out to be. Austen is not approving of buggery any more than she is of adultery by Mary’s brother, or fornication by the jilting beau of Marianne in Sense and Sensibility.

And and and! there must have been some purpose behind burning Austen’s letters and papers after her death. Her tongue was sharp and she may have had rude things to say about powerful people^^^, but she may just as well also have peppered her private correspondence with sauce.

Rule on, Saint Jane.

*Alcestis has been rendered into English by Ted Hughes. It is truly frightening.

^This is a joke. If you get it, you know more about Jane Austen than I do.

** OK, OK. Just having fun.

***Twain enjoyed jousting with his admirer and good friend William Dean Howells (Howells aptly called Twain “the Lincoln of our literature”), who was also an admirer of Austen. Twain took a very pointed stick to James Fenimore Cooper, trashing him for stated literary crimes, but only fulminates over Austen. His tongue may have been in his cheek.

^^^See Wiki for an example of Austen’s kicking against the pricks by satirising the librarian of the Prince Regent, an admirer.

 

 

 
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Posted by on September 3, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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The race is on, or off

Hello dear reader – It truly is delightful to be back with you again, here in the comfort and warming security of a blog about writing.

Just now I am working on a novel about the end of the human race. It is exciting to write as I hope it will be exciting to read, and my deadline is for sometime this year.

However while I have been writing the human race has been upping the ante. It is hard to write fiction these days that is not eclipsed by reality. Usually I steer clear of politics in this blog though anyone can see where I am coming from in my books.

But. . .I thought I had a topic that could withstand any amount of heat from the real world, if only by slapping on some more sunscreen lotion. I mean, what is more final than the end of the human race?

Events of the last year and the beginning of this have made me wonder if I am so far out of the loop of life that I cannot see the noose being tightened around our collective necks.

The most powerful country in the world – or should I say wuuurrld – the United States, is holding its leadership election this year and the front runner of one of the parties appears to be a raving lunatic. I am not saying which party this is, as the front runner of the other party also appears to be less than the full quid. One of these upstanding individuals appears to have hit on a new way of reaching the top: if it moves, insult it. It’s working a treat so far.

Of course that is only the most powerful country in the world. There are plenty of others to go around! The middle east – wow! Syria. . .Yemen! Yemen is off the news wires because no one is safe there I think, but that unfortunate land has more than 20 million people who depend on imported food and water and the main ports are damaged for a large part of the population. There are at least four warring factions and one of these is backed by Saudi Arabia, which is bombing anything that moves.

Saudi, meanwhile, is pumping oil like there is no tomorrow, driving down the price to give the Russians a run for their lack of money and the newly back on stream Iranians a show of fingers.

Russia is bombing Syria. It claims to be bombing the wild-eyed – that’s all you see, usually – jihadis and their supporters of the Islamic State, but they are also reportedly bombing the people who are fighting the Syrian government. Russia likes the Syrian government. It has given them a port, their only one in the Mediterranean, on a 50 year lease, and they’d like to keep it.

The Syrian government is led by people who profess a type of Islam known as Alawite. It does not seem too clear what this is about, except that it is a kind of Shiite faith.

That means most of the rebels the Russians are also bombing are Sunni, like the Saudi Arabians. So the Saudi Arabians, who have more Sunnis causing trouble in the world than they have people in Saudi Arabia it seems, are unhappy about this.

Next door in Iraq, Shiite and Sunni are also squabbling and fighting the Islamic State, which is Sunni.

If that was all I maybe wouldn’t have a headache. In Africa. . .well, I would rather not talk about Africa just now. Forgive me.

Asia – the recent “save the world from crisping” meeting in Paris has joyously concluded that we are indeed turning the earth to toast and that we should do something about it. China has celebrated this by deciding to build another 250 plus coal fired power stations, and India plans to double its coal throughput.

They say they will do something about their emissions. That’s good news!

If only that were all. Europe! The cradle of western civilisation is reeling from Islamic terror, Syrian refugees, Russian-provoked conflict in Ukraine, and the resulting tensions between the newly aggressive bear and family and all those to the west who don’t like them very much.

Korea! I forgot Korea! North. . .Kim Wrong-un has pouted, and when he pouts, his country explodes a nuclear device. In this case he claims it to be a hydrogen bomb rather than an atomic bomb – the kind that obliterates millions upon millions of people.

All this, and yes, more. . .but I am weary with these details. The point is that as I slave, desperately and with artistic if sub-literary intent, on a novel about the end of mankind, mankind seems racing to beat me! Any one of these alarming and indeed harrowing traumas shaking our faith in ourselves could spin so out of control that the end would really be the end. In the 19th century and for much of the 20th, a novelist could beaver away without needing to worry that before she or he could crank the thing out that the whole of humanity would be unavailable to read it. I don’t want to appear selfish, but that really does seem very unfair.

Celine, the writer I keep dragging into this blog, began one of his last novels (North):

“Sure, I tell myself, it’ll all be over soon. . .whew! we have seen enough. . .at sixty-five and then some, what difference can the worst H. ..Z. . .or Y superbomb make. . .”

The consolation is that Celine wrote this in the 1950s, well over a half century ago and as a species we are still here, for a little while anyway. So there is hope for us all, and for me to finish my book. Maybe.

Humanity. . .our species. . wow. . .Could you make it up?

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 
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Posted by on January 22, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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Say what?

Recently a friend suggested i write “stream of consciousness”. and discussed a successful novel by a New Zealander that seemed to him marred by a structure imposed on the writer’s stream of consciousness style. Not having read this writer, I don’t know what to say about that particular book.

My friend’s suggestion did make me think a bit, not only about my own writing, which has been heading in a different direction really, but about the writing known as stream of consciousness.

The thing about it is that it seldom, if ever, is what it seems. Of the writers I am familiar with who could be grouped under this rubric, none gives any evidence of really having written just as it came into her or his head. If any wrote a first draft like that, it changed fast enough before publication.

As readers of this blog will know, I greatly admire  the French writer, Celine (Louis-Ferdinand Destouches). Celine was many things as a man, among them an anti-Semite, and the unpalatable parts of his personality I don’t admire at all. but as a writer, he had a gift that many other writers would love to share. Some of his most devoted followrs and emulators were themselves Jewish – one admirer, a teacher at Brandeis University in its early days, visited Celine in exile in Denmark and wrote a not especially good book about his disillusion with the writer as man, as if this should have been a surprise,*

Celine was a complex character and delving into his ideas about writing has any number of traps. He made things up, at will – about himself, his style, his reputation, his influence. What he really thought is never quite certain. Did he mean it when he said in his last book, “In two hundred years I’ll be helping the kids through high school”? Or did he mean it when he said, “My three little dots. All the real writers will tell you what to think of them.”

When Celine sounded serious, there was some meat to these bones. He said once that he might write 800,000 thousand words, only to pare them down to less than a quarter that number. And he went on to say that when people admired his style because it seemed as if he was talking, that he actually contrived this so as to give readers not the word they expected, but a different word.

Maybe getting it from 800,000 to less than 200,000 meant the result of  stream of consciousness was only realised through rivers of sweat.

There are many writers who have been influenced by Celine and whose work seems “stream of consciousness”. Americans Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac are perhaps the two best known. To me, they are a struggle to get through – their work lacks the immediacy and fun of Celine’s best writing, perhaps because they really did just write it and put it out there, though I don’t really believe this. Serious writers write seriously. They try. They struggle.

I don’t know where my best writing comes from. From my brain obviously but from some time or place in it, where some little pinprick of inspiration puts a few things together. But I do know that as with Celine good writing does not come by itself; it comes through toil and revision. Writing is easy. Good writing is hard. Making words work together as they ought is the best thing I do, but I know that I fail and go on failing, and that my successes are only partial.

The book I am writing is on its fifth version. The fourth attempt I abandoned after nearly 10,000 words. This one is past 11,000 and it feels better, somehow. A lot of the writing is not much good, but the bible of writing I follow says to keep going, and that’s what I am doing. There is another draft, and then another, and another and another. . .and in the end, if it’s no good, there is version six!

Well, I would like that not to happen. The drafts are fine, but throwing away a manuscript. . .it’s hard. This version really does seem better even if there are some things I don’t like much about it, so far. Raymond Chandler is alleged to have written that when stuck for what to do next, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand. It’s tempting; I’ve been thinking just along those lines. . .

Thanks for reading.

* Milton Hindus, Crippled Giant.

 

 
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Posted by on December 22, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Unmanageability – a guide for advanced practitioners, taken from Shakespeare

Dear reader: If you don’t know by now that next April marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, well – you actually do!

It will be a wonderful occasion – after all those years, and the countless words spilt on innumerable pages, real and surreal, he remains the greatest writer ever, and that is saying a lot. Not everything he wrote had the golden touch of his best but in a relatively short life, he produced so much outstanding literature it is difficult to credit, though it is true.

It is also true that there is a lot that is unknown about Shakespeare. That has allowed people who should know better to create fabulous alternative authors, from Bacon to other nobles otherwise unheard of. Not too long ago the film Anonymous put just such a case. Trying to be as generous of spirit as possible, that is complete rubbish.

Shakespeare wrote some of his plays with others, but it did not take long for him to be regarded as the senior partner in that kind of enterprise. He had a gift that was just astonishing, even to his peers. It is also true that theatrical practice at the time meant companies “woodshedded” their productions. Shakespeare as an actor as well as playwright would have taken a full part in these and no doubt there would have been changes to lines and scenes as a result. Plays were more of a collaborative enterprise then than they typically are today. That is a very far cry from a secret author cunningly slipping scripts to an otherwise undistinguished actor and entrepreneur.

Shakespeare’s work seems inexhaustibly multifaceted. A few of his plays have been portrayed as both comedies and tragedies, and I’ve written a blog post about this (“Toiling with Troilus”), but more nuanced interpretations of his work allows for remarkably wide-ranging productions. Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet credably set the famous romance in modern Venice, California’s gang turf (to be fair, Bernstein’s West Side Story did the same on New York streets without crediting the Bard). Productions change their historical garb with remarkable ease, and make their cases to be understood and appreciated.

Even so, there are those who don’t like him.

Recently I had a brief conversation with a dramatist and actor who found him “too wordy”. Wow! It reminded me of the joke about someone who saw a production of Hamlet and was bored – “It’s full of cliches”.

An Irish critic titled a book on the plays Shakespeare is hard – but so is life. What was easy for readers and viewers to comprehend in Shakespeare’s lifetime now needs guidance to fully appreciate. But to suggest he is boring is just wrong. Part of the reason for the bard’s success was that he did it all – actor, theatre impresario, writer – so knew how to put “bums on seats” in competition with other attractions seeking punters’ pennies – bear-baiting for example. The groundlings – illterate kids and the like – needed excitement and Shakespeare gave it to them. The literate wanted more, and they got it too. But for us, changes in our spoken and written language and in theatre convention really mean using critical editions, and then our brains, to get what is there to be got.

There really is a very great deal. In “Toiling with Troilus” I’ve tried to show my appreciation of Troilus and Cressida, a play even many educated people have never heard of. This time I’d like to wander around Hamlet, arguably the world’s best-known dramatic work, and in its “existentialist” cloth, as fresh and relevant as when actors first trod the boards reciting the lines.

Discovering the “real” Hamlet is a detective story and no single explanation or text is ever likely to please everyone. Harold Jenkins’ wonderful Arden edition is my favourite and persuasively suggests that one printed edition, from Germany, was actually an inaccurate theft – a so-called memorial reconstruction – by one of the actors who appeared in the first production of the play. Jenkins even shows the role played by the actor who was the thief, as the man remembered the lines of the play closest to his own, and flubbed those where he was not involved. There is more in Jenkins’ absorbing account.

It is a commonplace to say that Hamlet the character was indecisive. That is not entirely fair. Hamlet was caught in a difficult situation. His father the king had died suddenly and he, the inheriting son, was deprived of the crown by his uncle, who had married his mother with unseemly haste after his father’s death. Brooding on this, he is confronted by the ghost of his father who says he’s been murdered, and insists on revenge.

Rationalist that he is, Hamlet needs to decide whether this vision is real or not, and if real, whether it might be a trick by a demon rather than a true visitation by his departed father. He cleverly lays a trap for his uncle to find out, meantime feigning madness to keep the villain guessing. Once he realises the truth, he passes up the opportunity to kill the uncle at prayer as it was believed that was a ticket to hell, and in the end only manages to exact revenge at the cost of the kingdom to the Swedes, his own life, the lives of his betrothed Ophelia, her brother Laertes and their  father, the pompous Polonius.

What presses on Hamlet all this time are circumstances beyond his control. He is not helpless, but he cannot manage what comes at him.

This is a very contemporary dilemma. The so-called 12-step programmes used to recover today by sufferers of complaints ranging from alcoholism and drug addiction to food issues and more begin by sufferers saying they had admitted powerlessness in the face of their addiction “and that our lives had become unmanageable”. That first step however only introduces a stark reality of “recovery” – at no point in the remaining 11 steps does life become “manageable”. Instead it is necessary to “turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him”.

Life thus remains unmanageable by the sufferer alone. As Catholic theologian Richard Rohr emphasises, life is only managed through turning to a force greater than oneself, a “higher power”. When I jest with my friends that my tiny bubble of the universe is “completely unmanageable” my tongue is firmly in my cheek but. . .

Seen coldly, life – life, not one’s daily chores – is ultimately unmanageable for everyone. However much we might think we are taking care of everything, the reality is that everything is actually taking care of us. Whatever we think we are doing, in the end, we end. As Celine’s most famous aphorism put it, “The truth of this life is death”.* Celine endlessly mocked the perverse delusions of madly avoiding confronting the truth about our lives and ourselves.

Hamlet, something of a genius, nimble as nimble could be, is nonetheless overwhelmed by a chain of challenges that finally destroys him. As he avoids one calamity after another, he dismisses as foolishness the looming presence of the cunning son of the Swedish king, who uses an excuse to entrap and ultimately subjugate the Danes. Honoring the fallen prince fits in perfectly with the Swede’s perfidious plan.

The tragedy of Hamlet is not that he cannot bring himself to act, but that he feels unable to act –  trapped in a web of circumstance that try as he might, he cannot shake loose. The famous “To be or not be” speech is a meditation in the face of this harsh reality of trying to “take arms against a sea of troubles” and end them at the price of losing his life, or surviving but enduring that sea. Hamlet wants to live, and he wants to exact revenge, but his own cunning plan comes to nothing though he manages to kill his uncle in the mist of a general slaughter.

Hamlet is a brilliantly constructed play and is full of wonderful lines that have kept their magic for more than 400 years now. Many of these are mysterious**, still the subject of conjecture, while others resonate within us for their wisdom. A good production shows that life really is unmanageable – by us. The Great Dane barks up the wrong tree by trying to handle it all himself.

Of course, it is pretty wordy. ..and full of cliches.

Thanks for reading.

*Celine used this famous phrase first in his doctoral thesis on the physician Semmelweis, who discovered the principles of antisepsis at the cost of his own life. Celine then plagiarised himself in this first novel, Journey to the end of night.

** “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on November 26, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Getting on with it

Henning Mankell died recently. He was 67. Mankell wrote dozens of novels. plays, and television and film scripts and has a non-fiction book yet to come on the illness that took him away. He was not only an author, but from what I can tell, a very nice person. Take it from me – writers are not always nice people.

Mankell’s best-known creation was a detective in the small Swedish city of Ystad, Kurt Wallander. Wallander made the switch from novel to television not only in Sweden but also in Britain where the title character was portrayed by Kenneth Branagh.

The Swedish series made it for me, someone who loves film but usually finds television unbearable. Wallander was not just human and fallible, he was declining in his powers of detection and the empathy, that he had used so brilliantly in his long career. His dedication to his profession destroyed his marriage and his daughter, coming to work with him, was not always charitable about his failings.

To this wannabe novelist with eight thrillers on offer in the e-universe, Mankell is both an embarrassment and a prompt. To have written so much and to have died relatively early – my slight (and so far unsuccessful) output pales in contrast. It is true he started writing fiction much earlier than I did, but so? He had the gumption to do it, while your unworthy correspondent hid his sublime light under not one but at least two scruffy bushels.

Other people in my life have also provided me with Mankell’s prompt: Celine’s most famous remark was that “the truth of this life is death” and when this insight is combined with stark reality, it definitely does focus the mind. I have been fortunate not to have a use-by date yet, but friends and loved ones have done, and the example of Mankell says to get with it.

There has been a nip of the wringer for me recently – a detached retina in one eye that has kept me from writing much. It could have led to blindness in that eye and that was a great pause for me – but since the operation I have scarcely put e-pen to e-paper. Yes, I can wriggle out from under a bit – the garden needs serious attention and I need to do some other domestic chores that matter.

But what I mean to do is to write – write fiction. It’s what I meant to do when I was fifteen years old, and it’s I what I’ve tried to do for around 15 years now, and when I’ve been able I’ve put my head down and got stuck into it. The more one writes, the better the writing is likely to be.

My eye is not still not well. It is weird. Two little bubbles dance around in it as if they are happy cells that have just divided and would like me to notice. When I go out in the noonday sun, I realise that I am neither a mad dog nor an Englishman, but am dazzled by the spectacle and without shades can not make my way. It is getting better but as with some other aspects of my life, getting better can be a long, long process.

Henning Mankell’s prompt says even if it is not improving at all, it is time to move.

Thanks for reading.

 
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Posted by on October 31, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Why hello there!

This blog is mainly about writing, though I stray from time to time to account for my unaccountable interests – as Douglas Adams so famously wrote, in life, the universe and everything! It is never entirely clear to me, whose life it is I am living, why I get interested in the things that I do, or how they transform themselves into fiction or indeed any kind of writing, and I am perhaps being self-centred in thinking that other people might enjoy reading about the process as mystery, as it always partly is to me. But I do think that.

Just now I am putting together the elements of a new novel, tentatively called Lemmings though I have some other possible titles in my head. It is the kind of book that is easy to spoil by talking about in advance, and I definitely don’t want to do that. If I can write it properly, it will be the kind of book my heroes wrote. I am not sure I can.

Writing for publication is hard. Joan Didion called it the loneliest profession or something like that, and I think I understand what she meant. There you are, all by yourself, tip tapping or scribbling away with only yourself for company, necessarily, yet what you are doing is aimed, in principle, at the whole wide world. If no one out there reads it, that changes absolutely nothing. All this is just as true in a newsroom, where I spent many years, as it is in total isolation, where I have spent long periods working out novels. You are there alone with your thoughts as you create, but your words, once put “out there” into the world, are never alone to you as author. They are incapable of being erased, even if you go to a great deal of trouble to erase them as writers ashamed of some efforts devoutly wish they could do.

Yet writing is easy too – too easy you might say. Electronic keyboards and the internet make it so simple to go from brain to the outer reaches of our solar system and even beyond! Somewhere far far from Earth some intelligent but indescribably bizarre being may read these words as soon as they are published, and say to itself in whatever way it is able, “???? Hey this dude is weird. Not only that, he’s ridiculous too.”

Before typewriters, when writers typically made do with pens made from bird feathers and ink that smeared, writing was a lot harder than it is now. It seems amazing to me that so many writers in the 19th century could write really fat books, just immense really, hundreds of thousands of words…and in more than one draft. Even after the invention of the pencil and the steel-nibbed pen this was still a problem. Celine, the French novelist, used to string his manuscript pages up in his lounge with clothes pegs so he could read them in flow as it were. He claimed late in his life that he wrote significantly fat books – like eight hundred thousand words fat – and then cut them back to a few hundred thousand or even fewer, pruning and pruning as well as rewriting.

Today writers are gifted with PCs and easy to use editing tools, and extra fat books are in vogue again, but it’s not the same as when Dickens wrote them, or Thackeray, or indeed Celine, whose books were not noticeably short and were handwritten..The typewriter – which featured prominently shall we say in his second novel, Mort a credit* – had been invented in the 19th century and Mark Twain, a fan of new technology to the point of bankruptcy**, wrote Life on the Mississippi on one, the first author apparently to script a book with the wonderful new device.

Where was I? Ah, right here, in front of the laptop, watching the letters cascade, one after another, onto the screen. Dear reader – I am embarked on this adventure, a lemming in my own right mysteriously determined to jump over the cliff of literature to land on the choppy seas of indifferent readership.

Yeah sure. Onward. If you’ve got this far, dear reader, thanks for your perseverance.

 

*The first person narrator attacks his father with one in a gesture of contemptuous modernity at his inability to learn to type.

**Twain invested huge sums into a linotype machine that was pipped by the real deal. Visitors to Twain’s home in Hartford, Connecticut,, can see the version he sought to develop, a monstrosity compared to the successful competitor. Twain had to embark on an extended tour of the world, lecturing and writing. Following the Equator, far from his most successful work, is nonetheless worth a read.

 

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on March 27, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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