Why I Write

So far in my posts on this blog I have only hinted at the reasons for writing them. In one sense, no justification is necessary; this blog is not being written under duress, and, intentional fallacies aside, there are no coded messages hidden in the text that implore the reader to send for help. No, I do it, of course, because I want to, but why do I want to?

There are the obvious motivations: I want to practice my writing; to generate additional impetus to help with writing the novel; to receive feedback; etc; etc. Case closed.

But still this is avoiding the question: why write anything at all? Simply put, I have ideas, and ones which I thought were interesting, and wanted to record them. But is that sufficient explanation?

Sometime ago I came across the following quote from Nassim Taleb.

Most people write so they can remember things, I write to forget.

The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms

At the time I thought this was the typically-contrary type of statement in which Taleb seems to specialise, a sign of his wilful individualism, but I’m beginning to be convinced.

For years, intermittent thoughts bubbled up, occasionally recurring, and which I thought might make a good plot for a story, or perhaps a humorous set-piece, or simply an insightful observation. Even the ideas that I thought would be interesting to others were ignored; at most they were occasionally jotted down on a tiny scrap of paper only to be tossed away later. Over time though a feeling grew in me that this wasn’t a sufficient response, that something more permanent should be constructed from them. It was a discomfort that these ideas were being lost forever, with no guarantees that I could ever regenerate them on demand in future.

Despite this reasoning, I suspect I feel similarly to Taleb. I might write down the ideas so that they are remembered, sure, but they won’t need to be remembered by me. Once the initial documenting is completed I can simply forget about them, and be guilt-free in my forgetfulness. The instinct to hoard is sated.

The problem is that writing down an idea isn’t as simple a task as it sounds. Sometimes the idea is actually just the suspicion of one, the hint of its existence, a sense that there is something there, but it’s inchoate and inarticulate. It needs a physical medium in which to assume a form and to permit its boundaries to be shaped and discovered with any precision.

What they don’t seem to tell you, or perhaps they do and we ignore it, is that the cure is as harmful as the disease. In the writing of thoughts already had, are spawned many more; writing is dangerous.

Moreover, once started, there is no way to quit. It is no cure, merely a palliative. There is only temporary respite until the calls of the newly-discovered ideas become too strong to ignore. Nothing to be done but wait until the ideas stop coming. But who would wish for such a thing? Not I, never, quite the opposite.

Inevitably though, the flow will cease, and what better comfort for that moment than documentary evidence? I can show my sceptical, older self that the younger manifestation did indeed once possess ideas, and with them produced something original, even interesting. Geoffrey Wellum had it right when he said he wrote to convince himself that, at some point in his life he had been of use.

At the very least, and even if nobody ever reads it, writing is reassurance.
For any readers who also write: what drives you? Please do share your thoughts below…

A Lifetime of Metamorphosis

Chapter 1

‘A mantra is a sentence where every word is where it should be’, said Boris Akunin, giving the 2013 Sebald Lecture at Kings Place, London. By its own definition, this sounded very much like a mantra. But mantra or not, surely we all wish to write sentences which meet this criterion, to organise our thoughts so that every word is where it should be. I wonder if there is an equivalent for the structure of a book: where every sentence is where it should be. Meta-mantra, perhaps.

Chapter 2

Preceding this lecture was the awards ceremony for The Society of Authors’ Translation Prizes 2012, which rewarded the efforts of translators working on novels from French, through Arabic, to Swedish. Margaret Jull Costa, longtime translator of Jose Saramago, Javier Marias, Eca de Querios and many other key figures of Iberian literature, went home with almost a clean sweep, taking commended prizes for translations of Portuguese and Spanish novels, plus the Calouste Gulbenkian Prize for her translation of The Word Tree by Teolinda Gersão. A very impressive achievement, and many congratulations indeed!

Chapter 3

Everything in my life is now broken-up into chapters.

It was the perfect opening to the lecture, a personal revelation, humorous and quirky, literary. Ever since he began to write, Boris Akunin has been unable to let something pass without deconstructing it into chapters; his novels, short stories, his Sebald lecture and even his day, none of them are immune to this sub-division. It’s quite possibly contagious.

Chapter 4

B. Akunin, so the blurb blurbs, is a Russian author, very widely read, and who has been compared to Gogol, Tolstoy and Arthur Conan Doyle. His critically acclaimed series of detective novels, starring the character Erast Fandorin, are rendered into English by Andrew Bromfield.

Chapter 5

For Boris to live a hygienic lifestyle was the principal desire of his mother, and for that there were only two professions which were suitable, medicine or literary translation. Lacking the particular aptitude for science, a life of literature beckoned. To save a real life or translate a fictional one, that would be one way to view it; either way, one can see her point, as both careers aim only to improve lives. Curious though that the act of literary translation is pure, whereas creating the source material is not.

Chapter 6

Grigory Chkhartishvili is a literary translator and academic, who, with pure intentions, diligently transforms Japanese works into his native Russian. The pride of his mother then, who declared, on the occasion of his first translation, that Grigory’s wife had made a good choice.

Chapter 7

In Javier Marias’ novel A Heart So White, the narrator Juan, an interpreter, begins a private conversation with his professional counterpart during one particular assignment, changing the words uttered by his politician client into something far more interesting. It could well be a common phenomenon in those circles. Certainly Grigory became increasingly annoyed with how the writers were telling the story, privately exhorting them to get the preliminaries over with and commence the story, or wishing that the material were structured differently. To maintain his professional integrity, and possibly not trusting that he would leave the text unaltered, Grigory took the cleaner path and instead began to write his own novels. The risk of discovery taken by Juan was averted for the time being.

Chapter 8

Grigory Chkartishvili is Boris Akunin, a man who was born to be a sacrificial lamb, to bear the brunt of the disapproval imposed by Grigory’s colleagues. The metamorphosis was not as easy as it could have been, possibly no better than it was for Gregor Samsa; he, and his novels, had to endure the criticism of his colleagues in literary translation, and delivered in his company at that! Akunin is apparently a Japanese word that translates roughly as villain, it seems to have been a prescient choice given this unfavourable reception.

Chapter 9

The writer is never off-duty he said, referencing Chekhov’s The Seagull. I am beginning to understand.

My eye falls on that cloud there, which has the shape of a grand piano; I instantly make a mental note that I must remember to mention in my story a cloud floating by that looked like a grand piano.

Funny though that clouds are always thought to look like something else, and not merely themselves. Why does no-one ever look at the grand piano and remark that it looks exactly like a cloud? Surely that would reveal just as much about a character as would their interpretation of those airborne inkblots.

Chapter 10

The first book Boris translated, as a teenage amateur, was Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Unfortunately for him, the frustration of referring to the English-Russian dictionary fifty times per page ruined the experience to such an extent that all the works of John Steinbeck became no-go areas. And so they remain today. It’s a salutary lesson for all language learners who are motivated by a desire to read foreign literature.

Chapter 11

If the writer is never off-duty, then continuous working hours are not the only sacrifices to be made. A more surprising sacrifice was his enjoyment of music. Whenever Boris hears a piece of music that evokes a particular mood, he labels it appropriately and then stores it away. Some time later, when writing a scene that requires that particular mood, he re-plays that piece and others similar, a sort-of sonic mood board, to help the process along. Effective it might be, but those pieces, like Steinbeck, is ruined thereafter. It seems that clouds are not the only objects in jeopardy from an author’s attentions.

Epilogue

I wonder how Boris Akunin feels to be on the other side now that his own novels are translated into other languages. Does he ever worry that his translators will undergo their own personal rebellion?

New Finnish Motivation

For a while now I’ve been preoccupied by thoughts of language, the preservation of language, and identity, sure that the kernel of an idea that I had for a novel could be made to work. But I worried that it would be an idea that only I would find interesting. Even though advice is given to not write for a specific audience and to write only for oneself, for a project that might be 100,000 words long and occupy several years, it becomes hard to put these worries from your mind completely.

And so I was very grateful to receive for Christmas New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani (translated from the Italian by Judith Landry), which in many ways was a gift of more than just a book, it was a gift of inspiration, of reassurance and motivation.

New Finnish Grammar became somewhat popular in the UK eighteen months ago, when, after an 11 year exile, it was finally published in English. It was a particular favourite of Nicholas Lezard, whose excellent review of it can be found in the Guardian, and was in fact quoted on the cover.

Set during the Second World War it tells the story of Sampo Karjalainen, a soldier who is found unconscious in the street, apparently the victim of a vicious assault. His head injuries are so severe that an almost total amnesia has overcome him, including the loss of his language. With the few clues about him pointing to a Finnish identity, the neurologist caring for him encourages Sampo to work hard at relearning his Finnish, with the eventual aim of him returning to Helsinki. The doctor believes that both his Finnish language and identity will re-emerge once he’s embedded in a familiar environment.

The central mystery of Sampo’s true identity, and the foreboding introduced in the prologue, provides the narrative foundation to the novel, allowing Marani to build atop it a discussion of the Finnish language and its inherent relationship to the Finnish book of epic mythic poetry, The Kalevala. The experiences of Sampo mirror the struggle of Finland to determine its own national identity and language, an issue that was forced by the Kalevala. In fact, so compelling is the novel’s narrative drive, that I had to actively slow down so as not to miss all the details. I’m sure I was unsuccessful, but at least it gives me an excuse to read this fascinating book a second time.

After having spent some time relearning Finnish Sampo is asked to name his favourite Finnish word or phrase, and replies that it’s the abessive case, and after reading his reasons perhaps you might be inclined to agree.

Yes, a declension for things we haven’t got: koskenkorvatta, toivatta, no koskenkorva, no hope, both are declined in the abessive. It’s beautiful, it’s like poetry! And also very useful, because there are more things we haven’t got than that we have.

This reference to absence could be applied to many things in the book, to all the things for which Sampo is searching. The key hypothesis of the neurologist is that both the Finnish experience and the recovery of his language would help Sampo in this search for his old personality and memories, and that developing each would reinforce the others. A pastor who instructs Sampo in the Kalevala seems to agree:

When you can read the Kalevala you will be a real Finn; when you can feel the rhythm of its songs, your hair will stand on end and you will truly be one of us!

With words like these, and similar from rest of the book, from all the persuasion and instruction that is delivered to Sampo, and that could equally well be being delivered to the reader,

So the shortest words are also the oldest, the most worn away by time. In Finnish, the word for war is sota, and these two syllables are eloquent pointers to how many we have indeed waged.

you might find yourself wanting to learn Finnish! The author certainly seems to possess a fondness for it, a language which is almost without relatives, Estonian and Hungarian being the only two.

However, the intellectual, linguistic side of the novel slowly gives way to sadness, when Sampo, despite his efforts to regain his identity, and no matter how much his Finnish improves, never really regains a feeling of inner peace. And I will leave things at that for fear of revealing too much. To find out more, I recommend that you read the book!

And yet, perhaps a little selfishly, as sad as I felt for Sampo, at the end of the novel I was heartened and encouraged. If a novel like this, which is rooted so heavily in the topics around language, can be so interesting and likeable, then perhaps there is hope yet. I can tackle once more my own idea, not with expectation, but at least with a little confidence. That said, the final lesson to take from the novel is cautionary, as, just like Sampo, I shouldn’t count on any certainties; there can be no guarantees that anyone will like my novel when it is finished, myself included.

Do I Say What I Mean?

I’ve been blogging for one month now, and it’s been an enjoyable experience so far. One aspect which takes a little acclimatisation is the sharing of thoughts with strangers, and I’m still not completely sure of how open I want to, or should, be. Some bloggers seem very comfortable revealing a lot of personal, even intimate, detail, to a degree that I doubt I’ll ever reproduce. Reflecting on this made me think about how we censor ourselves, and just how much of our meaning, or what we might potentially say, is obscured by this middleman of self-control.

Are we limiting ourselves in some way, or is this editing process actually converting our true, unwieldy thoughts into something comprehensible, something fixed and definite enough that the reader can grasp and understand it, without needing to perform an excess of detective work or a psychoanalysis of the author’s mental state.

This transformation of intent, of meaning, of what we intend to mean, is illustrated beautifully in the fascinating iPhone and Android app What We Mean, created by writer, poet and app developer Joshua Fisher . In his own words:

What We Mean is a poetry chapbook and creative application. Composed using love letters written between his grandmother and grandfather during World War 2, J. A. Fisher presents 20 blackout poems. In an effort to simulate a poetic War Department Censurer, Mr. Fisher redacted sections of his grandfather’s letters into poetry.

If we were to take J. Fisher literally, then what is he saying by censoring his grandfather? And who is to be protected by this act? Or alternatively, what is it that is to be presented in a more favourable light? Ultimately nothing, for we know he’s only playing after all, the original version is there for any and all who wish to see.

Or is it? How can we be sure? I wonder how strong the temptation was to pre-censor and to pre-process the letters so as to make them more amenable to later poetic reinterpretation or merely to protect some intimate family confidence. But if the difficulties of expressing one’s own feelings on a blog are grave enough, it is quite another thing to express those of someone else – do it with reckless abandon or utter restraint? Possibly the only, or best, way that it can be done is with honesty and purity of purpose, and it seems to me that he has honoured the memory of his grandparents. The writing in the letters is good enough to stand on its own merits, and deserves its showing in the app. Furthermore I think he is lucky to have had such good source material with which to work, as without it the task would surely have been much harder.

The idea of producing new texts from old, via a selective editing, isn’t an original concept, but what before might have seemed a rather formal concept, or mere demonstration of an artistic principle or technique (and one possibly loaded with more significance than really it deserved) is in this context rather more poignant. Whether this is mere sentimentality, and whether this affects our judgement of the final works or not, is an open question. Possibly it is one that could be answered by controlled experiments.

One interesting aspect of the app, from a user interface design perspective, is that several parts of it force the user to slow down, and even wait a few seconds. If this were a productivity app, it would simply be bad design, but in the context of reading poetry, it does us many favours. We are encouraged to take our time, to savour the words and reflect on their meaning, rather than furiously tapping onto the next poem, and the next, and the next, until the task of poetry reading is completed and can be crossed off our to-do list.

I don’t want to spoil the surprise of using the app, so I will only talk in specifics about one of the twenty poems. This is Inhale Often which contained a particularly touching sentiment. In the letter the author confesses to his wife:

I know I should write about how much I love you more often than I do, but honey you understand don’t you? Writing about it everyday is like writing about the fact that I’m still breathing.

In the poem the letter is rendered thus:

it takes a lot of doing for a guy
like me to be worth your
sweet
understanding

writing about it is like breathing

Reading the other poems, it’s interesting to note that some of them are merely a concentrated form of the original letter, as though any impure words have been removed by distillation, preserving the meaning of the base text, yet expressing it more elegantly. Switching between the redacted letter and the original text brings home the potential power of this process of elimination.

Yet other poems transform the meaning entirely, to construct whole new narratives, using the constraint provided by a fixed palette of words to inspire the creative process. I suppose that this is at once both easier and more difficult than writing poetry with the dictionary as your source material.

The re-imagining of his grandparents words, making them speak anew, could have been a tricky exercise, fraught with responsibility and special sensitivities, but I think J. Fisher has carried it off with aplomb.

So why not download What We Mean yourself (it’s free!) and share your impressions below?

Note: In the interests of full disclosure I have no connections to J. Fisher.

Hidden Haiku, Hidden Depth

Perhaps this is what Guy Debord and the Letterists were trying to achieve with dérive, purposefully using an incorrect map to artistically navigate a city – to arrive at a destination, other than the one desired, but that might prove to be of equal or greater artistic value than the intended original. If it has a literary equivalent, then it happened to me when I was reading a book about Arvo Pärt (Oxford Studies of Composers: Arvo Pärt by Paul Hillier), and learning about all the things I had expected to from such a book: his biography, music theory, minimalism. What I hadn’t expected to read was:

The sound is clear
And reaches the Big Dipper-
Someone pounding cloth.

Simply stunning.

The contrast in scales between the galactic and the solitary human, and the percussive linking of the two into the ending of perfect abruptness, floored me, and I sat silently for a couple of minutes trying to digest those three simple lines.

This particular haiku was written by Matsuo Bashō, master of the form, and the translation is by Ueda. I tried to find a link to it online and came across this alternative version instead:

so clear the sound
echoes to the Big Dipper
the fulling block

It’s elegant, yes, but I feel it lacks the power of the Ueda version. The first two lines seem virtually interchangeable, but it’s in that last line, in the final three words, that the difference lies. Three words, such fine tolerances, but actually, the margins are even finer than that; I think it’s a single word that has it.

Someone.

You or I, him or her, one person who could be any one of us, performing a task so mundane and, because of that, universal, so that it opens communication to the universe, to the entire history of humanity. Take away the human actor, and it reduces to a remote observation of dispassionate significance.

And so it was that I set out to learn about one man and his music, and ended up learning about writing, and a great deal more besides.

Note: a fulling block is a wooden mallet that was used to beat the cloth to help dry and soften it.

Thoughts at Intervals?

A good description of blogging? I believe so, and at the very least, an apt name for this blog. In long form then: the intermittent, quasi-periodic documenting of the varied strangenesses that populate my mind, the aim being to extract from that continuous quotidian internal commentary of ‘thinking’, solid, distinct thoughts, which thoughts seem to demand the revisiting of my attention, and thus might be worthy of yours.

Aside from, in my view, the euphony of the phrase “Thoughts at Intervals”, there is a degree of homage to its formation. Avid readers of Jose Saramago might have recognised in it the suggestion of the novel title, Death at Intervals, and it is no exaggeration to say that the Portuguese Nobel laureate Saramago has for me been a profound influence, both in literary terms and in general. The extent of this influence I will discuss in a forthcoming post, but today I simply wish to describe the first time that I attempted to read Death at Intervals (Portuguese title: As Intermitências da Morte).

Ordinarily, one might see the word “attempted” and suspect that I gave up reading it through boredom or one of the many other standard reasons we have for failing to finish novels. Nothing so straightforward here.

A few years ago after pleasant time spent browsing in a bookshop, the book caught my eye, probably due to the combination of cover and title, but after reading the summary on the back it was clear that this was a book worth speculating on.

And so, I began to read. However, approximately 70 pages in, I had the sense that the words I was reading, I had read before, and not just similar sentiments, differently expressed, but the very same sentiments, identically expressed. Initially I guessed it was perhaps a literary device, a statement about the repetition of life experience that immortality would bring, pertinent given the novel’s theme, but comparison with the beginning pages confirmed that this book had been bizarrely misprinted, destroying my nascent literary hypothesis. Roughly one third of the content was missing, replaced by a duplicate copy of the first third. Suffice to say, this enforced interruption was a major frustration given just how much I was enjoying reading.

At the next opportunity I returned to the bookshop, who expressed some surprise at the situation, but promptly replaced the book with an unconfused copy from their shelves. I left satisfied and finished reading the book shortly thereafter. The obsession initiated, many further books of his were consumed in the following year, and as I learnt more about this author, something approaching regret surfaced, a suspicion of an opportunity missed.

An author who had written both The Double (about a teacher who becomes dangerously obsessed with his double) and The History of the Siege of Lisbon (about a proofreader rewriting history by inserting the word “not” into a text of the same name), and who counted Borges among his major influences (and here I’m thinking of the stories Pierre Menard Author of the Quixote and The Library of Babel), would surely not have returned the book. No, I had acted in error. I should have kept the first book, and instead bought an additional copy, placing the two of them side-by-side on my bookshelf – Saramago’s proofread copy to the Library of Babel’s loan.