Friday, 30 July 2010

Poetry Please

My father emailed me with a link to 'Pied Beauty' the other day. Poetry has always been one of our shared passions - he introduced me to Yeats, and I think 'He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven' was read at his wedding to Mum - and we love Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose high Anglo-Catholic spirituality appeals to us both.

I sat at my computer looking at it on the screen. It was the first time I had seen a poem I know so well not on a page, and I wonder if this is how everyone will experience poetry in years to come. There's been a lot in the news recently about ebooks, ipads, kindles etc - they worry me but I like the idea that instead of electronic media replacing books they will just be different, running in parallel to a smaller, more efficient print industry but not really competing with it, just as radio, television, film and theatre coexist and develop in their own connected and complementary worlds.

I read it aloud. It's a poem I know well and love, but hadn't seen for a while, and reading it the words and rhythms were as comfortable and easy as old slippers but absence had bestowed on them a new freshness. It felt spring-cleaned, new-minted. Susie Boyt was writing in the FT the other weekend about how her relationship with Larkin had developed over the years from suspicion to understanding to almost nostalgia, and it's true that with each reading a poem can change, especially if the readings are years apart. But perhaps our attitudes to the truest favourites, like the truest friends, never really change.

Hopkins has shaped my understanding of the numinous as much as any writer, although it's not a coincidence that I first read him at the same time as I read those other pillars of my canon (Salinger, Eliot, Dante) and it does beg the question - do the things one reads in one's late teens/early twenties colour everything else one ever reads? It's definately been true for me. Nothing until my wedding rehearsal managed to compete on a spiritual level with a reading from Watership Down at a Unitarian church on Cape Cod at Easter c.1987.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

The World of Interiors

I suppose this entry should be about the interior world reading opens up... but really it's about how the latest copy of World of Interiors dropped onto my doormat last week, and I haven't managed to do more than flick through it yet. It gleams at me from my bedside table, insistent, inviting. In an ideal world, I'd sit immersed in it with a cup of tea and a pile of gingernuts, or a Kitkat straight from the fridge, beside me; on second thoughts, since this is an ideal world, perhaps a glass of champagne and a box of Rococo geranium creams.

It's the only magazine I subscribe to. For years I pretended I read Prospect, but after the boys appeared I couldn't keep it up any longer. Intelligent Life caugh my eye in the Gatwick W.H. Smith and I took a subscription as a present for my husband's stocking (I know, generous), but as a regular read I found it pretentious and smug. Nothing to do with the fact that they weren't interested in my article about the Museo Regionale de Oaxaca for their series on wonderful, little-known museums. Not intelligent enough, clearly. It still rankles.

But back to Interiors. Principally I use it for what I like to think of as 'practical' purposes: planning our dream house. Pictures of tiles or light fittings or fabrics are cut out and fanatically filed away. By the time we actually have a house - I estimate sometime around 2027 - we'll need acres of floor space and 7 bedrooms if I'm to put all my ideas into practise.

This is fantasy, of course, but it's not quite as hallucinogenic as the fantasy lives, or even just moments, one can inhabit in the pages of Interiors: life as a solitary poet, living in a cube of whitewashed wood and glass on a Brazilian cliff; entertaining sn old lover - or an old enemy - to a feast of dry martinis and caviar in an aubergine-lacquered drawing room. Actually the idea of an enemy sounded more glamorous in my head than it seems, really thinking about it. I wouldn't want to waste that sort of decadence on someone I didn't love.

I have several fantasy careers on the boil at the moment, all vaguely similar in that they're visual, rather than wordy, and fed by my Interiors obsession. I imagine myself a florist, an architect, a decorator. My interest in these alternative lives rises and falls as my faith in my writing, and my ability to make a living from it, waxes and wanes. At the moment seven years to train as an architect seems no time at all.

Monday, 19 July 2010

The Reader by Robert Bringhurst

Who reads her while she reads? Her eyes slide
under the paper, into another world
while all we hear of it
or see is the slow surf of turning pages.

Her mother might not recognise her,
soaked to the skin as she is in her own shadow.
How could you then? You with your watch and tongue
still running, tell me: how much does she lose

when she looks up? When she lifts
the ladles of her eyes, how much
flows back into the book, and how much
spills down the walls of the overflowing world?

Children, playing alone, will sometimes
come back suddenly, seeing what it is
to be here, and their eyes are altered. Hers too. Words
she's never said reshape her lips.

(A poem I'd never read before reprinted in the FT on Saturday.)

Friday, 16 July 2010

Unaccustomed Earth

Jhumpa Lahiri's new book is similar to In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (see below), and not least because both contain stories published previously by the New Yorker. Both are concerned with the children of Indian and Pakistani families making new lives in the US, but Lahiri's stories lack the bleakness of Muenuddin's. There is hope for her characters - for most of them, anyway.

Partly this is because she doesn't try, as Muenuddin does, to make her work reflect the whole of society, at all levels, rich, poor, old, young, male, female, urban, rural. His book is also more specifially located in Pakistan, whereas her world is the US, with the Calcutta/Bengali background of her characters as a unifying backdrop. As a result it's more affluent, and therefore by definition more optimistic, less bleak.

She writes about successful immigrants, who on the whole have accepted their new lives, marrying Americans, feeling American, at least in part. This must be one reason (apart from her extraordinary talent) why her writing is so praised and successful there: on one hand her experience as an immigrant speaks so powerfully to Amerian readers of all backgrounds, but she doesn't make non-immigrant Americans feel bad about themselves - there's no blame, no bitter social commentary, none of the angst than can characterise British Asian writing.

I found it interesting though that the one trait she can't relinquish, as an author, is her sense of herself as a Bengali, and a middle-class, immigrant Bengali at that. Her protagonists can be young or old, male or female, but they always have that identity at their core.

Although I loved the stories they are very much vignettes - not the great novel I'm always looking for. Her writing is exquisite, deceptively simple, totally penetrating, but I found myself wishing that she would give me more than just glimpses of the characters she uncovers with such subtle understanding. But perhaps her talents are simply more suited to portrait miniature than history painting.

It made me wonder, though, why readers - I know I'm not alone - so long for sweeping, compelling narrative as well as fineness of detail and characterization. What needs does it answer in us? Although Muenuddin's and Lahiri's style of writing is very much in fashion I can't help wishing they could work on a larger scale. The last book I read that had all these qualities was Wolf Hall, and it felt as though I'd waited years to find it. Then again, it was well worth the wait.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Is the Pen a Phallic Symbol?

For every writer with Nigel Slater's reserve (see below), there are several, it seems to me, who cannot write a word without powerfully imposing their egos on it. Every sentence they compose seems silently to proclaim, 'What I have to say is Important - simply because I think it.'

You'd think that good writing should be more about insight, imagination and empathy than ego but there are reasons so many writers fall prey to this particular form of hubris. First, as for politicians, thinking that you're cleverer than other people can be a key reason for ambitious kids to want to be writers in the first place. For the record, I don't think it's an especially good one, in either case. Believing that what you have to say is somehow more valid or weighty than anyone else's opinion is the kiss of death in writing as in life generally. Early success can be a crucial intensifier of this trait; desperately trying to succeed in a overcrowded fishbowl is another.

On a more subtle level, though, there's no point trying to be a neutral writer. Objectivity is impossible to achieve anyway and subjectivity in everything from the choice of a word or a fact to the perspective of a fictional character is everything. That's why readers love their favourite writers so much, and see their books as friends. And it is also why so many readers love the writers I'm criticising here, because they love the intensity of their gaze, regardless of where it's directed.

What's interesting is that the worst culprits seem to be men - often good writers, but (for me) such rampant egomaniacs that their preoccupation with themselves can actually override their talent. I can't think of a woman I would include in this category, except (judging by their journalism alone; I haven't read their books) perhaps Germaine Greer or Jeanette Winterson.

So, the men: Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Salman Rushdie. I tried Rabbit Run in my late 20s, couldn't get into it, and put it down to not being ready. Some years later - feeling more mature! and having greatly enjoyed Updike's reviewing in the New Yorker - I bought the Rabbit omnibus, anticipating with delight an entire holiday spent in Rabbit's company. But I was disappointed. Despite the exquisite writing, at times excruciatingly so, at others luminescent, some of the best descriptions I have ever read - I found Rabbit himself, and thus Updike, so unpleasant that I couldn't finish the first installment. I couldn't have cared less that he would one day rise again, and still later actually be rich.

There does seem to be a fiction/non-fiction split (Paul Theroux being the exception that proves the rule). I've never even bought a Martin Amis novel, because simply reading the dust jacket in the bookshop makes me want to shout out, 'Unreadable Wank!', and yet Experience and his literary criticism are dazzling. Is it because he's harder on himself when he's trying to tell the truth?

For purposes of research I seek out my disdainfully uncreased volume of the Rabbit novels. He is just as small a character as I remembered, though the writing seems even more incredible to me now than it did when I last looked. Now I wonder, why do I blame Updike for Rabbit's nastiness? Or do I just not get it? It must be something I lack, not to be able to put aside my scruples and enjoy the virtuosity. Or perhaps I'm just jealous. Maybe there's something to Freud, after all.