On Liberty

On the occasion of the campaign group Liberty‘s 80th birthday, the Guardian published the thoughts of such writers, thinkers, and activists, as Julian Barnes, Edward Snowden, and Shami Chakrabarti, on the topic of liberty. I highly recommend that you read it, and to that illustrious list, I add some of my own thoughts below.

On Liberty

Of the many things that are passed down to us, our individual freedoms and liberties count among the most important. Codified in law we are protected from overreach and abuse by the state, but we cannot live off past triumphs forever. And there have been some major triumphs – the UN Declaration of Human Rights, The Geneva Conventions, The International Criminal Court. Yet these achievements are not monuments for us to admire; they are not merely to be a reminder of our forebears’ courage and intelligence. For if we treat them as such, they will surely become so.

As with any monument left out in the cold for too long, they will be corroded by the political climate, denuded one liberty at a time, as we are made to believe that it was only the loss of ornament and nothing fundamental. That is until one day the monument is toppled in an inverted revolution. If we have walked past it every day with our admiration turned to indifference, how will we notice if it is gone?

These liberties we possess are strong and they give us strength too, but, like us, they are not indestructible; their vulnerabilities must be met with energy and vigour. Campaigning, letter writing, petitions, protests, defending the powerless, donating time and money, correcting always the self-interested arguments of the powerful, and guarding too against our own exploitable prejudices. If we do nothing, we will find our revered monuments to be made of sand, which as Jimi Hendrix sang, “And so castles made of sand fall in the sea, eventually.”

To see what you can do, please consider visiting the websites of Liberty, PEN International, Amnesty.

Review: The Infatuations by Javier Marías

A signal danger with reading or reviewing books from a long-time favourite author is the risk that it will disappoint, and in doing so colour our perception, slowly built yet ever fragile, of both the author and their previous work, both of which we had hitherto admired. And so it was with Javier Marías, and his latest work, The Infatuations. I needn’t have worried.

In this brilliant novel, María Dolz has her daily routine of gentle observation of a happily married couple thrown into disarray by the brutal murder of the husband. Drawn into their world, what follows is her discovery of the possible reality behind his gruesome death.

This is by no means the first of his novels to begin with a death, and yet the subsequent, original development shows us that the interesting story is not the event itself, but rather the effect it has on the people involved, and the efforts they make to accommodate this new and unwanted situation. This is accomplished through verbose, yet never prolix, characters, whose every sentence is a pleasure, and indeed constitute much of the point of a Marías novel. Their exquisitely detailed considerations and peregrinations, forensically examining each potential action, both past and future, reveal much about their own psychology, and that of the reader too. Wordplay suggests María, the first-person narrator, is really Marías, but in a sense, all the characters are him, or at least their opinions are his. For a less-gifted writer, or one possessed of lesser insight, that could be a flaw indeed, but not here.

As far as one can judge without the Spanish original, Margaret Jull Costa is in fine form yet again, handling with aplomb the page-long sentences of an author who inhabits a world of the future and conditional tenses, his moods those of the subjunctive. “That is the awful power of the present, which crushes the past more easily as the past recedes”, by extension, possible future events might possess even greater power than the present, which might explain his fascination with the hypothetical. Or perhaps this is the salient quote, “What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us.”

If Marías’ humanistic streak isn’t immediately obvious from this grim fascination with death, then phrases such as, “What sense does it make that each person should have to experience more or less the same griefs and make more or less the same discoveries, and so on for eternity?”, draw it out. His novels, while never strident, attempt to show ourselves as we really are, and are perhaps his way of gently encouraging us to mend our ways. “That’s the worst thing about losing our old codes of conduct… We have to be guided by ourselves and then it’s very easy to make a blunder.” It’s not necessarily a pessimistic view of our inconstant natures, merely realistic, and one that’s consistently held throughout all his novels.

An admirer of Proust, in a recent interview with the Guardian, he declares, “He says terrible things, but in such a way that you know that you have experienced those thoughts too.” It’s a tradition Marías fully embraces in his own work, but through all the deep exploration of our inner motivations, he never forgets his storytelling instinct, never lets the narrative drive disappear completely. In this there’s something not dissimilar to Kafka, both have a way of building tension through the lengthy and potentially hazardous calculations that their characters make. The basic considerations of his plots, of man as an animal – morality, love, death – is another thing they have in common. Here it is the things that we both do, and don’t do, for love, or because of love, and further, the things we can believe would be done in the name of love, which are the principal target.

As in many of his books, a quote from Macbeth – from which play came the title for his novel, A Heart So White – makes an early appearance. Macbeth, upon learning about the death of his wife and Queen, exclaims, “She should have died hereafter.” Once introduced, this phrase becomes something of a motif, to which the narrator repeatedly returns throughout the novel, each time re-examining its meaning in the light of new revelations. It can’t be mere coincidence that it’s a Shakespearean tragedy from which Marías continues to draw inspiration.

However, perhaps the most telling aspect of his literary philosophy is revealed near the end of the book, when the truth is normally on the verge of being revealed, but no, “The truth is never clear, it’s always a tangled mess. Even when you get to the bottom of it. But in real life almost no one needs to find the truth or devote himself to investigating anything, that only happens in puerile novels.”

Marías has not written one of those, and even if in this book we never quite attain the truth of the story with complete certainty, this doesn’t stop us learning some truths about ourselves. And how very enjoyably unsettling it is.

The Many Surprising Sides of Poetry

When I started this blog, I thought I knew its purpose and intended content. What I didn’t expect was for poetry to play such a large role, least of all that I might find myself reading some in front of an audience! Yet of the 14 posts I have written so far, 5 are poems or are related to poetry.

First came a piece of fiction, Life at Sea, that embodies this whole process, writ small, and charts a gradual descent into verse. This was followed by the analysis of a haiku found quite unexpectedly in a book about classical music, the post Hidden Haiku, Hidden Depth. Further chance discoveries led to me downloading J. Fisher’s intriguing iOS poetry app What We Mean and reviewing it in Do I Say What I Mean?. After this, I found myself writing a poem, which through much effort and editing became Stitch Yellow Quilts, and soon thereafter came a haiku, Eutrophication. If I wished to bolster my argument through dishonest arithmetic, I could even include this article in the count. Make it 6 then.

So it has been a rapid inculcation into the beguiling discipline of poetry, a process that has continued apace; on Tuesday evening I attended, and performed at, my first open-mic poetry reading. The event, Poetry Unplugged – a name that could provoke many surreal fantasies of clockwork poetry robots – is held weekly, at the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden, London.

Wander down the darkened street to inquire within – timidly in my case and continually on the verge of mumbling excuses and backing out – and you’ll be encouraged by all the staff to give it a go, on the assurance of meeting with a friendly reception.

Sure enough, I was greeted with raucous applause as promised, an equal treatment to the other performers, though ‘unplugged virgins’ are particularly are well taken care of, and afterwards received another helping of the same. But before you start fantasising of a world organised similarly to the one in Martin Amis’ short story Career Move – a world reversed, in which poets are treated like film stars and their poems eagerly anticipated and developed in a big-budget way, while screenwriters are left to languish in poverty and a state of eternal hope – let me stop you right there.

No, there aren’t any waiting agents, ready to sign you up with an enticing cash bonus and year-long tour of the world’s literary festivals. The biggest financial reward you’ll receive for performing is a £1 discount to the entry fee. Can I mark this as my first literary advance? So there are many incentives. To reference myself, referencing someone, referencing Chekhov, another motivation was the opportunity to acquire additional grist for the blogging mill.

As for my performance? Inevitably, if the one delivered in my head beforehand was a tour de force of emphasis and timing, the reality was a resounding and solid OK. Overall, I think I was a little flat, and missed several stresses that made the poem seem worse than it is. Sorry, poem! But that’s okay, as one of the “old” hands said to me afterwards, I should just come back and read it again but better. And why not, given how much effort went into writing it.

If any poets are reading this, and wondering whether they too should consider public readings of their work, then I would say to them, ‘yes, you should, you must!’ The prospect of reading aloud in front of others, first made me raise my game for fear of looking stupid, a much bigger risk than with a blog post, and secondly, forced me to consider the rhythm of the poem far more carefully. No longer could I let my brain glide serenely past the additional beat as though it weren’t there – the lips aren’t nearly so able to forgive. Equally, those same lips came to the end of a line and carried on moving, but there was nothing for them to say, only ghost words, and so I had to insert extra words here and there to give the rhythm its full space for expression.

You don’t have to take the word of neophyte though, talking to Unplugged’s congenial host Niall O’Sullivan at the end of the night, he revealed that the unconscious editing of poetry that can happen during a performance, particularly if speaking from memory, can be quite astonishing. Words, lines, and sometimes whole verses can disappear. They simply weren’t needed. So, if you’re struggling to edit a poem, maybe this is the answer: memorise, read, and record. Then play it back to discover what your brain has figured out, without you having to think at all. This is mere hypothesis though, has anyone tried this for themselves? Let us know below. Thanks!

Now that I’ve begun, I hope to write more poetry, and every now and again post the shorter ones as a midweek fillip, perhaps saving the longer works for the main, weekly post. And when I’ve got a few new poems stored away I will return to the Poetry Cafe, better prepared this time. Maybe see you there?

Don’t Only Think, Feel Too

What is the hardest thing to write about? Or to be seen to be writing about, if such a statement makes any sense?

In an interview with Michael Silverblatt of Bookworm, the late, great author David Foster Wallace (DFW) argued that, in his experience as college professor, it was sentiment that his students had the most difficulty producing in their work. To express weird, twisted and abnormal thoughts was nothing but the norm to them. Sentiment, however, was to be avoided at all costs, lest the student risk being perceived as naive, corny or soppy. I’m sure a desire to appear clever was another key motivation.

These observations of DFW were brought back to me by a recent conversation I had, in which a friend, commenting on my blog, said that they wanted to know what something made me feel and not only what it made me think. I accept the criticism gratefully.

First, let’s acknowledge that it is hard to write and talk about these things. Certainly in today’s postmodern world, where knowing-parody and the ironic are staples of our cultural diet, the straightforward emotion is often viewed as simplistic and unsophisticated, and displaying it almost impolite to the point of offence.

Further, a society that values the intellect and wealth perhaps sees a diminished role for emotion, except in the cynical exploitation of it that organisational behaviourists refer to as emotional labour. You’ve all experienced it, take the last time you bought a cup of coffee for instance – the forced-smile greeting and the exhortation to have a great day as you leave. Occasionally genuinely felt I’m sure, but that would just be a happy coincidence. This misuse of false emotion must surely colour our impressions of the genuine article, a Pavlovian training to be wary of it, lest that person harbour ulterior motives.

Perhaps it’s difficult to write about because the felt-emotion can be fleeting and difficult to reproduce, whereas the thought seems longer term, more permanent. The emotion only persists for about as long as we read the book, in the best cases perhaps a little longer. But its intangible nature makes it harder to record and to analyse, and so we don’t bestow upon it the same permanence.

A few days ago I watched the film 50/50, a loosely-autobiographical dark comedy-drama about Adam, a 27-year-old radio journalist who develops a rare form of cancer. The film charts his struggle, and those of his friends and family, to come to terms with the diagnosis and subsequent treatment of his condition. Certain elements of the film appear to be on the verge of becoming corny, but the writing and classy acting help it veer away from this, and the end result is a very good film. Although it is sad in parts, it isn’t unremittingly so, and even the sad moments are generally handled through humour, that is, apart from a scene near the end, which was played straight, and was enough to leave me weeping for several minutes.

That this happened, and the intensity of it, took me quite by surprise, and I’m not exactly certain why it affected me so strongly. The risk of what I think of as “narrative self-delusion” – the way we fool ourselves by telling neat Just So stories to explain our behaviour – is ever present here, but it’s reasonable to suspect the following factors: one of my relatives is unfortunately currently in hospital; the very similar ages of myself and the protagonist, and the sense of tragedy that accompanies his young age; finally, the brilliantly-subtle acting of Adam’s father, an Alzheimer’s sufferer, as he looks on confused, not quite understanding but still somehow touched, when his son tells him he loves him. Even remembering and writing about it now isn’t very easy, as sure a sign as any that it is necessary.

Maybe one explanation for our unwillingness to write about these things, is that they either seem too simple – base states of happy, sad or angry – to be worth the bother of writing about, or they are too complex – the reasons for feeling how we do, and the concurrent, paradoxical feelings we seem able to hold in a single moment – mean that it’s simply easier to talk about abstract thoughts, which can be logically connected and analysed.

Then consider that it’s possible, even probable, that the scene won’t have the same hold over me the next time I see it. The perfect storm of circumstance might no longer be present and, this time prepared for it, I’ll be able to watch it more calmly. This is another problem of putting emotional content in art; it’s difficult to control the response of the reader or viewer, there are too many variables at work.

The rejection of this, by a cynical culture, is a defence mechanism. A sign of our unwillingness to face pain because, by talking about what we feel we can induce in others similar sensations, we are at risk of a kind emotional infection. In everyday life, this might be an unwelcome imposition, but in art, in literature, surely it is what we desire. And if not desire it, we probably need it. In fact, we need both new, original thinking and strong feelings.

I had been previously persuaded by DFW’s interview that it was necessary and right to inject sentiment into writing, and wanted to do so, but in the main I suspect I had failed. The recent conversation, and watching the film 50/50, has reconfirmed this suspicion, and I am encouraged to try again.

That said, looking back over this piece it seems I’ve only partially succeeded in trying to talk about how I felt; inevitably a whole lot of thinking resulted. Still, it’s a better ratio than before, and no matter my level of success, I shouldn’t stop trying. And if I do, then readers, feel free to call me on it.

Stitch Yellow Quilts

Today’s post was inspired by a conversation I had recently with a fellow writer. I hope that they, and all other writers who read this blog, find some encouragement in it (and if so, please share with others). First though, a disclaimer. This poem is, apart from a couple of verses at the end of Life at Sea, the first I’ve ever written, and certainly the first time I’ve tried to express myself wholly through verse. With that in mind I must stoop ungracefully to some special pleading. Please read with a generous heart, and let my good intentions compensate for any lack of flair or technical sophistication. To reiterate, this poem was not designed merely to be decorative; I hope it fulfils its intended function. So here it is:

Stitch Yellow Quilts

You told me that you
once wrote,
some chapters of a book.
Now set aside,
they lay half-hidden,
closed echoes of ideas.

And so today, begin again.
Put pen to paper,
record your pain,
now through laughs,
darkly uttered.

Write your reality,
bright future, or sad past.
Breathe epic novel,
or brief haikus.
Collect the small moments,
put them to good use.

Reclaim the night and
with distant focus,
Animate your dreams,
take to the street and write,
hoarse voice upon blank air.

Peel post-it notes,
and stitch yellow quilts;
patchwork stories
stuck piece by piece.

Spill one word,
let ten more drop.
Set to rest
now and then,
what should we call them:
a writer’s dozen?

But in the end,
write because
you can,
for fun.
Write, now,
and don’t ever stop.

As I mentioned before, this is really the first poem that I’ve written, and done so mainly from gut instinct about what sounds good and not. I would therefore welcome any useful feedback and advice from those better versed in the ways of poetry than I. Thank you!


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…

K. rolls the dice

So, it’s the New Year, a time for ambitious undertakings. Here’s one: what is the power of literature? Perhaps that’s a little too ambitious. Slightly less ambitious then: what is the power of a novel? Just how much influence can one wield?

Let’s put aside political or religious tracts, those books explicitly designed to advance arguments and convert the minds of those opposed (or bolster those of the already converted), and consider only novels. Of course, works of fiction can still be constructed to assert (or through satire, to subvert) positions and thereby persuade, through whispers and allegory, reader to concur with author. They must do so by subtle means though, if they wish to succeed in that first and necessary aim of being a ‘good novel’; necessary of course if it is to be a novel that is read, without which there will be no deployment of its arguments.

We might think of Kafka, and the morphing of his name into the adjective ‘Kafkaesque’. His depictions of unyielding, inhumane yet man-made bureaucracy have led to the labelling of similar, less extreme examples in real life. And yet the pithy designation of them has not, it seems, reduced the likelihood of such systems occurring. They still repel, confuse, and control us, and mankind suffers to relive analogous, edited versions of K.’s bewildering experiences. One might argue then that the fate of The Trial was to become one extended dictionary entry. An even longer one, if we include in it The Castle too. And this extensive dictionary entry could in turn be replaced by a few short words, and nobody need read Kafka ever again.

This seems unfair to Kafka, and indeed it is, and yet I feel it’s not a complete exaggeration to say it. Depressing, for all the obvious reasons, to those who care about the rich variety of the written form and the artful expression of imagined scenes, it is surely even more so to the aspiring writer. If this is the fate to befall Kafka, that strange, original, and brilliant author, then what hope for the rest of us? In attempting to engage with the world we become K. evermore completely.

Perhaps the solution is to remove our aim from society, and focus on the individual reader. And with that focus, give ourselves up to chance, forsaking our hoped-for influence.

In the post Thoughts at Intervals? I wrote that Saramago has been a big influence on me, and that continues to be true. The source of this inspiration can be traced back to the first book of his that I read, Death at Intervals. And this is the thing, it was not through advancing arguments, but the shear brilliance of the writing, the form of the expression, the gentle, incisive wit delivered with a warmth for humanity, that persuaded me to act. This writing style, and the revelation of greater and more appealing possibilities in literature, moved me to enrol on a creative writing course and try my own hand at fiction (to be uploaded to this blog in future posts).

Some months later, I happened to read an interview with Saramago in which he claimed that his sentences were constructed not just to carry meaning, and not even just to be elegantly structured, but that they were to possess a musicality that could be heard, so that by reading sentence after sentence something of a symphony would be produced. As excellent as Margaret Jull Costa’s translations are, I couldn’t help but feel that I was missing this musicality that the sentences had possessed when in their original Portuguese. To hear the music then, there was no other solution but to begin learning Portuguese.

The third, but probably not the final, act of this story? Well, you are reading it now, without the creative writing, it is unlikely that this blog would ever have come into being. And what is more, the truly exciting thought regarding all of this is: what further influence on my life will this all have? The contemplation of future possibilities brings to mind the proverb For Want of a Nail .

A final point, or caveat, to make is that the book found, in me, a receptive reader who was minded to act, without which state of mind the book would have been just that, and I would have gone about my life unperturbed. The corollary of this is that the same book read at a different time would likely not have had the same impact, our tastes and personalities changing and maturing as they do, so that it could well be a different author who is now my favourite, and a completely different language that I would now be learning.

And so returning to my earlier suggestion. Writers, having no control over who it is that purchases their books, nor requiring assessments as to their sensibilities or suitability for the book at that time and at that place, really have no choice but to give up their own aims and instead retrospectively adopt those accomplished by their audience. In influencing then, chance is the thing, and possibly the only thing.

And now for some audience participation: if asked to pick the single most influential book (in terms of changing your outlook and particularly your actions) that you’ve read so far, and you are permitted to select only ONE, what would it be and why?

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.