Thursday, 17 June 2010

The Butterfly Notebook

It is a notebook - I write longhand before putting it online; writing non-fiction I always wrote straight onto the screen but for fiction writing longhand first seems to make a huge amount of difference - but it doesn't have a butterfly on it. It's more the idea of a butterfly that appealed to me: supping on nectar; moving lightly and freely, but not purposelessly, from one flower to the next. I like the thought that it's a creature of sunshine, too.

It wasn't until my sister pointed it out to me, though, that I remembered the butterfly's transformative quality. How could I forget, since one of the books I read very regularly at the moment is The Very Hungry Caterpillar, who gorges himself for a week before unfurling his beautiful wings? The bit I've always loved is the opening scene, where the egg lies serenely on a leaf in the moonlight, waiting for life to begin.

Butterflies have proper grown-up literary associations, of course, too, most notably the great Nabokov, as distiguished a lepidopterist as he was a novelist. At the end of his life he wrote that he had 'hunted butterflies in various climes and disguises: as a pretty boy in knickerbockers and sailor cap; as a lanky cosmopolitan expatriate in flannel bags and beret; as a fat hatless old man in shorts', and this poem he wrote in 1922 sums up all the magic of hunting moths by night:
And I go out into the garden, to its mists and wonders,
and I smear the damp oak trunk
with sticky gold, and juice drips from the brush,
trickles down into the cracks, gleaming and heady...
The saffron globe of the moon sails out from behind the cloud,
and the oak, my accomplice, looms tall and ample.
It has soaked up many an earthly dream;
I wait in the lilac gloom, and it waits with me.

I had promised myself that I would try not to just quote writing that I love, but it's impossible not to with Nabokov.

As far as real notebooks go, I prefer them plain. This one is A4 sized, covered with wine-coloured - wine-dark, even - card with a black cloth spine and ruled paper inside. I bought lots ten years ago when I was living in Kilburn, from the local newsagent, and I've never seen them since; this is the last of my supply.

I have used other notebooks, so I'm sure I'll find another kind I like. I flirted with Moleskines, but somehow the sizes they come in don't suit. For a while I kept my commonplace notes in a small, lipstick-red leather notebook, quotations and comments at the front, and lists of books to read and places to go, perhaps to live for a little while (I was free as a butterfly, then, childless and unencumbered, and couldn't imagine not being), at the back: Sicily, Istanbul, Phnom Penh. I only made it to Aix and Oaxaca, but I suppose there's still plenty of time left for the others. Come to think of it, I only read some of the books, but there's time enough for those too.

1 comment:

  1. I must say this blog adds a very welcome counterpoint to (a longtime favourite website of mine) and Life in Giant Bloodsucking Vampire Squid.
    I think A Fine Balance should have come with the final 30 pages sealed so people have the choice to finish or not. Maybe sealing could be Big Book Idea that Saves Industry? Create novel that can be read either with or without sealed bits changing entire plot/vibe/ending like Lolita. I sort of accidentally finished A Fine Balance, shouldnt have, such a bleak conclusion. Since then I have developed a habit of often not quite finishing books. As for the writers block and the insomnia, maybe ripples from May 6th? I hope not. x