Friday, October 31, 2008
Thursday, October 30, 2008
It doesn't always matter - a lesser book can cope with four minutes - but Corvus is one of those books that almost overwhelms a radio reviewer because there's so much to talk about, and that discussion can go in all directions. The book itself is a forest of ripped slips of paper marking extracts that have to be remembered or read out loud (my poor family has patiently listened to most of them). Frankly, it looks like a rook has got to it.
Birds, says Woolfson, are indivisible from their environment, unlike humans who have lost that connection over time. Birds are the marker of the health of our environment, too. We may curse them and the way they live cheek by jowl with us in ways that don't always suit our need for control. But, as she says, imagine a world without them, without bird song. What that silence would mean.
- among the most intelligent, if not the most intelligent, birds - brains the same size and capacity of apes and known by some as 'feathered apes'
- complex social organisation, gregarious
- live cheek-by-jowl with man
- surrounded by superstition (the 'devil's bird'), treated with suspicion and active dislike due to black colouring, being 'hoarse-voiced', cleaned up after battles (carrion) and disaster (Great Fire of London for example) but can't pierce skin with their beaks - need others to do that
- live in rookeries with large, untidy nests
- eat insects, birds eggs, very young birds
- live around the planet - some in NZ
Esther Woolfson lives in Aberdeen. She's a writer and fell in accidentally with birds. Her adoptions included:
- Doves in a doo'cot
- Bardie a cockatiel (her daughter's bird)
- A Rook called Chicken
- Spike the Magpie
- Ziki the Crow
She says living with birds was like marrying into another family, being introduced to a new society. Her book is full of her observations, but it is also full of the knowledge she amasses about these fascinating birds. There is a large bibliography and she wrestles with the things she learns - the intelligence of the birds, their capacity for feeling, whether or not they are happy or unhappy living with her. There are some wonderful stories - moving, heart-warming, stimulating - and some simply fascinating information for all those bird lovers out there. For example, the details of how birds fly and the historical envy humans have for this singular skill.
Signs of corvid intelligence:
- vocalising - Spike and Chicken can say words - especially Spike who can say his name and say 'hello' - one of his favourite curious sounds was 'eh?'
- caching (hiding) food in case of future need - or just to keep it - shows an ability to think ahead and to lie - Woolfson's birds hid things all over the house in holes in the wall, cushions, books.... and took great care over this
- reaction to the environment - the birds show fear of some things (men with ladders) but not others, they don't think their reflections are other birds but assume they are simply themselves (Woolfson refers to scientific research to confirm this), they consistently like some music (Schubert, Bach) but not other music (Benjamin Britten), they think black things such as rubbish bags are dead Corvids and react angrily or upset ... and so on
- feelings - woolfson is convinced corvids show empathy, joy, grief, mischievousness, anger - it's a controversial view and it is hard to measure this or to be sure but Woolfson can have no other explanation for what she has seen living with these birds - some literature says that without words there are no feelings but she asks why this should be so - this discussion in her book takes the reader (as much of the book does) away from birds and into a philosophical discussion on what makes us human
Woolfson writes simply and movingly about the business of living with birds. The formality of the rook who bows on greeting, caws 'good morning' every morning, preens carefully every night, who offers gifts with precision and care. There is wonderful humour e.g. the family never mentions James I to Chicken the rook because he decreed that all rooks should be killed. Spike is simply hilarious with his 'human' voice calling 'Spiky!' or yelling 'Hello!' down the phone to Woolfson's daughter.
She tells us other famous people - writers like her - have kept corvids. Charles Dickens had a pet raven and Truman Capote had a pet rook called Lola. The latter friendship is especially fascinating and wonderfully rendered in The Truman Capote Reader. Lola cached things inside The Complete Works of Jane Austen. Capote found all sorts of things in there including someone's car keys and the first page of one of his short stories - one he had abandoned because he couldn't find the first page. His grief on losing her is intense.
Oh, there is so much more from the history of birds (the discovery of the feathered archaeopteryx, the hummingbirds that are 30 million years old) to the beauty of flight and feathers. There is some exquisite writing about birds in the wild, and corvids in particular, and about Aberdeen and about the wider world of nature.
And were Woolfson's birds happy? She says they seemed to be happy in the way they acted, their health etc, and, as she points out, they were members of the family whom she believed she could read as well as her own children. As she also says, there were no other options for them as abandoned birds - in the wild they'd probably have died. In the end, Spike the Magpie becomes more aggressive and territorial and suddenly and inexplicably (and terribly sadly) dies. Why? Woolfson doesn't know, but suggests he needed more than she could give. Chicken, on the other hand, seems content with domestic life.
Of course any family living with birds or animals must be a bit mad - there are bird droppings, food cached everywhere, birds homes to clean, windows that must be kept shut - but by the end of the book I felt that we could all do with more of this sort of madness. People like Esther Woolfson are surely closer to where humans used to be - 'indivisible from the environment' - and remind us what we have lost.
This is a humbling book. A wonderful book. Highly recommended. And it's going off now to my friend Helen who has a blackbird nesting outside her kitchen window. She says I can go and see it. Any day now they expect the eggs to hatch.
by Emily Dickinson
A route of evanescence
With a revolving wheel;
A resonance of emerald,
A rush of cochineal;
And every blossom on the bush
Adjusts its tumbled head, --
The mail from Tunis, probably,
An easy morning's ride.
Thanks to emilydlover who commented on my previous hummingbird post. I realise I don't know enough about Dickinson's poetry and resolve to rectify that.
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Meanwhile Bookman has put his readers onto the weekly Guardian poem, and this week's is an exquisite poem about a hummingbird by Mark Roper. Apposite for me, given that I am currently deep inside Esther Woolfson's Corvus A Life with Birds [to be reviewed Thursday and I'll pop my notes up here.]
Not just how
it hung so still
in the quick of its wings,
all gem and temper
anchored in air;
not just the way
it moved from shelf
to shelf of air ...
And ends with the hummingbird 'quiet as moss', almost glowing, in repose. Which is where I'm at with Corvus is now - Woolfson is wondering about avian thought and emotions, and whether, without the language to name them, birds can think and feel the same way we do [more on that later.]
by D.H. Lawrence
I can imagine, in some otherworld
Primeval-dumb, far back
In that most awful stillness, that only gasped and hummed,
Humming-birds raced down the avenues.
Before anything had a soul,
While life was a heave of Matter, half inanimate,
This little bit chipped off in brilliance
And went whizzing through the slow, vast, succulent stems.
I believe there were no flowers, then,
In the world where the humming-bird flashed ahead of creation.
I believe he pierced the slow vegetable veins with his long beak.
Probably he was big
As mosses, and little lizards, they say were once big.
Probably he was a jabbing, terrifying monster.
We look at him through the wrong end of the long telescope of Time,
Luckily for us.
Monday, October 27, 2008
Ever since, Lucy can't put it down.
Thursday, October 23, 2008
I went to a pre-premier screening in Petone this evening of Show of Hands which is set in Taranaki and stars Melanie Lynsky and Craig Hall. It's magic. Terrific script and unfaltering direction by Anthony McCarten of Ladies Night and Death of a Superhero fame, and an assembly of believable kiwi characters whose story is delicately spun and full of surprises, humour and unexpected emotion. Lynsky and Hall are particularly marvellous. Music by Don McGlashan. Don't miss it. The world premier was at the Montreal Film Festival. It premiers here on Nov 4.
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
It's interesting how I write the beginning and the end first. I did the same with The Blue - although I had more of the first part of that book written before falling upon that all-important final chapter. I just like to know where I'm headed, and the rest of the novel plays out from there. I think I read Marilynne Robinson does the same.
Anyway, back to the picometer. As you can see, I am aiming for 85,000 words which is not a long novel but which is, I think, long enough. And hey, I'm 10% done. So if I work at a rate of (gulp, just worked it out) 5,000 words a month I'll be done and dusted by the end of 2009. Note, I polish as I go so when I'm finished, I'm finished, until editing begins. And right now writing Precarious makes me feel exhilarated. I am on a roll. Long may it last.
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Both pieces haunt you in the way straight narratives don't because these words have a longer life than words that simply work to take a character from home to the dairy. They are like long hairs that fall on pillows and in food, thicken a brush, tangle in a wool blanket. You keep finding them, picking them out, untangling them. Not sure that metaphor works that well as there is an element of irritation - the 'yuck' factor - with discarded hairs! But the endless discovery and untangling is just right, I think, and the work required.
It's interesting, too, that both writers have long sentences with a number of sub-clauses (long, curly hairs?) that are both purposeful and open-ended with room left for the reader to wonder (wander?) long after s/he has finished reading. Have a look and see.
Saturday, October 18, 2008
What plays out before your eyes is a very very clever economical sleight of pen, no over-egging of this pudding, good solid story-telling, beautifully written and yet what lies beneath is left to the reader to fathom so I wonder what conclusions others will reach when they turn that final page?
Interestingly, a comment on this post notes the sudden disappearance of Susan Hill's blog which included a creative writing forum (she continues to have a website.) This is followed immediately by another comment, from a Janis Goodman:
I had also been missing her [Susan Hill's] blog and emailed her today - she replied saying that she has given up blogging entirely. It made me think about the strange relationship the reader (and occasional contributor) has with the blogger. I felt a bit as if door had been unexpectedly slammed in my face. Perhaps it would have felt better if she had felt able to blog her decision and leave the blog up in cyberspace as an archive, for a while. I suspect that a lot of us have been revisiting her blog, wondering if all was well and if there was a technical problem with the blog - as seemed at first. Obviously she has every right to give it up - it's simply that her readership has been instantly disenfranchised.
Posted by: Janis Goodman Wednesday, October 15, 2008 at 01:02 PM
Other comments follow expressing the same feeling of regret and loss.
Writers blog for all sorts of reasons, but most of us who do it seem to agree blogging is a stimulating and useful precursor to writing fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Rachael King and Vanda Symon are two NZ writers who have declared this to be so. In some cases, it becomes an end in itself as another form of essay or creative non-fiction or book review. Ex-pat kiwi essayist Martin Edmond apparently talked of the benefits of blogging at his recent Writers Read presentation at Massey University, and he mentions in one post how he feels when he doesn't blog:
It is perhaps not useful to think of a weblog as a site of publication but that's how it always seems to me. Not a notebook or a diary because those forms do not assume an immediate readership of more than one. On the other hand, I also feel a kind of pressure to post regularly here even when there is nothing urgent to say. When a week goes by, as it has, and I post nothing, I start to feel as if some essential activity has lapsed even though that's probably not so.
It's salutary what he manages to pack in when he doesn't blog! Dovegrey reader seems to have started her blog as an ordinary common-and-garden reader and is now on UK publishers' lists as someone to send a book for review. Bookman Beattie seems to have carved a similar space for himself in the NZ review lists.
It is also increasingly recognised that blogging gives a writer a much-needed web presence in this day and age. I began O Audacious Book to put The Blue out into cyberspace when the bookshop sales started to falter a little (pre the Montana Awards) and it's certainly been useful for that, the highlight being when an Israeli publisher wanted to buy the rights for translation and asked me to email him via the blog. But however it started, my blog immediately became more than a publicity tool.
Like the reading journal I wrote while working on The Blue as part of my MA, I find blogging helps my free-floating ideas to settle and my thoughts cohere so I can apply them to my fiction. And like Edmond, I also enjoy this new non-fiction writing form - the journalist in me still looking for a place to settle, I suppose - especially the chance to rant about my passions and pet hates. A writer like Denis Welch enjoys this freedom to the full.
Finally, the blog actively introduces me to interesting writing about writing and books, through visitors to my blog commenting or linking or just visiting. In fact it opens up all sorts of interesting blogs.
I am kept company, entertained and encouraged by my regular blog-visits. I am constantly reminded, for example, that all writers go through moments of exhilaration and serious self-doubt, and that almost all of us work from home alone and need - and don't need - distracting company. As someone said, once, it is like the all-important 'water cooler' chat other people get at work.
So, another reason to write a blog: a sense that I am adding to this cyber-conversation, especially for my 'regulars' (I say that with as much hope as confidence). On the other hand, I know I can spend too much time on it when I should be writing a novel, and sometimes I do wonder if my peregrinations are merely a chat with a water cooler, no human ears in sight.
I mull over what keeps me visiting particular blogs and try and convince myself O Audacious Book might fulfil some of those criteria for some blog readers. Here they are: the quality of the thoughts and the writing I find there, the information offered and the character of the blog itself. The best writer blogs for me have a wide-ranging intelligence, passion, quirkiness, commitment, a sense of fun and aren't afraid of controversy.
Which makes me feel for the followers of Susan Hill's blog. To go looking and find an unexplained absence would be very upsetting. Like losing a - well - a friend. This surprises me a little to say it as I wouldn't have thought it was so before I started this lark.
So shame on Susan Hill for deleting her blog without so much as a warning. And a plea to all the bloggers I visit - see the blog roll on the right - not to do the same. If you're even so much as thinking about it, let me know, I can counsel you.
Friday, October 17, 2008
Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) also attributed to Bessie A. Stanley
This is being read at a service on Thursday afternoon UK time to remember my friend, NZ-born Kirk Stephenson, who died tragically in London a couple of weeks back. It is apposite. Kirk lived life flat out - doing more in his 47 years (juggling travel, work, friends, family, tennis, opera...) than many would do in two lifetimes.
The sentiment in this piece is beautifully expressed, I think, finishing with the reassuring idea that 'memory is a benediction'. I gather it is much used at funerals so I must have heard it before but while I remember the odd phrase, I don't recall the whole piece (especially that bit about the poppy).
According to my brief internet research, the Stevenson attribution is in fact incorrect, and Emerson (another popular choice as author) is also wrong. US writer Bessie Stanley, they say, wrote the piece for a competition: a 100-word essay on ‘What constitutes success?’. It was published, apparently, in 1905, although people are divided on where.
It's understandable it would be sheeted home to Stevenson. G.K. Chesterton said he was a man who "seemed to pick the right word up on the point of his pen, like a man playing spillikins."
I have been to Vailima in Samoa where Stevenson lived his final years as Tusitala ('Story writer') and died suddenly aged 44. My son, despite being told not to, sat at the desk where the Scottish author wrote, and I breastfed my baby daughter on his wide and airy verandah while my oldest son read a child's version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde beside me. We walked up Mt Vaea to Stevenson's grave where the tablet bears his 'Requiem':
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
Now I read that and think: '44, he was 44.' Never until now has it seemed so young.
Then I see Kirk's name written formally on the order of service that was emailed to me, and beside it the dates 1961-2008, and below it the names of the pieces of music he loved, and the names of people he loved and the words they are to stand up and read, including the piece at the start of this post, and I realise that while words are reassuring in this situation - are touchstones, charms, prayers - ultimately they make no sense. Forty-seven makes no sense. Like the man at the summit of Mt Vaea, he'd only just got started.
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
I read Anne Enright's The Gathering purely because it won the Booker last year, although I was nearly put off reading it because it pipped a certain NZ author (sad but true) and because nay-sayers called it a depressing read. I picked it up at last because one of the judges said it had the best last line he'd ever read, and because reading the first two pages the prose struck me as exquisite. It was.
*This lovely book has arrived. I mentioned in my bird post on Monday that I was delighted to discover another writer/blogger Gondal-Girl across the ditch is reading this memoir. She, like me, is fascinated by birds. Already I am captivated by the cover of Corvus and the fine production by Granta. I'm reviewing it for National Radio on October 30 - the day after Wisdom by Andrew Zuckerman and the day before Memories, Dreams and Reflections by Marianne Faithful.
*And while I'm on about birds again - here are the stunning velvet birds my friend Fifi makes which I also mentioned in the last post. They are simply lovely, and she says on her blog she has some left and will take commissions if the one you want isn't available.
*Meanwhile, Graham Beattie has graciously asked me how the Open Day went at the Randell Cottage for writers in Wellington on Sunday. As I explained in an earlier post, the historic cottage is home to NZ and French writers for six months each a year. In between writers, we open the doors for the public and for the cottage supporters. (I chair the cottage's Friends' group).
We also hope the Open Day might attract interested writers who want to try and imagine themselves working there. We are calling for applications for the NZ writer now.
So here's the report: It was an exquisite Wellington day with people swimming at Days Bay, and others visiting the last of the tulips at the Botanical Gardens up the road from the cottage. So you can guess we didn't get too many out-doorsy types, young families, or garden fans.
Our visitors were people who liked books, people who liked writing, people who liked historic cottages and Francophiles. Amongst them were City Councillor Ian McKinnon and a number of Foundation Friends of the cottage who donated money to the residency when it began seven years ago. They included NZ Books Abroad's Louise Wrightson, former diplomat now Nine-to-Noon-book-reviewer Bruce Brown, children's book reviewer and assessor Barbara Murison, and arts patron Jeanette Bornholdt. (The list of Foundation Friends runs to 30 people plus.)
Internationally recognised children's author Beverley Randell Price, whose family donated the cottage, was also at the Open Day along with a number of members of the Trust and its Friends committee. Cottage enthusiast and member of both the Trust and the Friends, Fiona Kidman, was on deck all day!
I turned up at 2 pm, nicely placed for the 4 pm drinks for the cottage's supporters. We were thrilled to be joined by composer Jack Body who is involved with the Douglas Lilburn House. One project the Friends' group is working on is to link the Randell Cottage more closely to the two other residencies in Thorndon: the Lilburn, and the Rita Angus Cottage, as well as the Katherine Mansfield birthplace. So watch this space.
Over and out (until the Booker results).
Monday, October 13, 2008
One of those great travel shots of The Blue. This time in St Mark's Square, Venice, courtesy of Alan who is sharing the book with the locals, and Deb who snapped the pic after they'd been to the Rugby World Cup in France last year. The thing is the pigeons really do look rather taken with it. Unfortunately, there are no pigeons in The Blue, but there are multiple appearances by chickens, shearwaters (mutton birds), mollymawks, seagulls, and tui. I do, I confess, have a bit of a thing for birds.
MORE ON BIRDS: post updates [10.21 am/1.17 pm] - Australian writer Gondal Girl has blogged on birds too! I know she's interested in them and today (roll down her post a little) you'll see she talks about a book called Corvus by Esther Woolfson which looks at the connection between birds and humans. More strangely, I am due to review the book later in the month on National Radio [it hasn't arrived yet but I'm looking forward to it.] And Fifi Colston's lovely velvet birds are up on her blog. I covet one of those but missed out on her last exhibition, I see there's another one coming up...
It was the start of the day and the calling of the chickens. Lilian loosened the gate of the run and ducked her head to enter, giving a thin high whistle at the back of her teeth as she did. It was either that or the clang of the scrap bucket against the gate post, but by the time she looked up they were out of the hen house and running across the hard earth. It didn't take much, only the smallest whistle and the single knock of a bucket, and Lilian was besieged by birds.
Opening of The Blue [appropriately published by Penguin 2007]
And nothing to do with birds but equally fascinating, there's a post up on Vanda Symon's blog today about a writer session in Dunedin discussing the Burns fellowship and the place of Maori writing in literature. Keri Hulme, Witi Ihimaera, Renee and Rawiri Paratene were on the stage.
Friday, October 10, 2008
I am on the Friends Committee and will be on deck from 2-4pm to welcome visitors to this historic Wellington cottage which is home for two writers every year for six months each: one from New Zealand and one from France.
Come to: 14 St Mary’s Street, Thorndon.
Randell Cottage is one of Wellington’s oldest restored cottages. Take the opportunity to explore this corner of our city’s history, and if you're a writer you might like to come along and imagine yourself working there... We're calling for NZ writers to apply now.
Here's what you get: a cottage rent free with free electricity and broadband etc, plus a stipend of $2,500 a month funded by Creative NZ. We are currently trying to value the whole package but it must surely be worth around $30,000 for the six months (given the central location of the cottage.) It is just a walk away from the National Library and the central city.
NZ writer Jennifer Compton has just left the cottage after a successful six months writing a novel and finishing off a book of poems and another of essays (this is not a photo of Jen! it must be of one of the Price family who so kindly donated the cottage.)
French author Olivier Beys arrives in October for the summer. For more on Jennifer's visit go to the Friends' newsletters here and here.
Monday, October 6, 2008
My copy of The Crocus Hour is warped and bent from all the places it's been: the kitchen bench, the bath, beside the bathroom sink, under a cup of coffee, stuck in my bag. That is a tribute to a good book. If my camera was working I'd show you that rather than this pristine version off the Penguin website.
Not everyone agrees with me about Randall (which is a pen-name, by the way). When I mention her, I usually get comments like 'she's too clever', 'she wrote that weird book about the devil' (Within The Kiss) or 'I liked The Curative ...' (a stunning novel about an inmate chained up in Bedlam in the early 19th century which unfolds largely through dialogue). They either haven't tried or didn't like What Happened Then Mr Bones which is set in Petone with a narrative that goes backwards in time following a family which has a habit of dying violently, or Within the Kiss which has Faust as a bored housewife, Mephisto as a tennis coach and Faust's daughter as a tennis player with a soul to sell, or her first novel Dead Sea Fruit.
The fact is I've loved all of Randall's outings - as confusing and as frustrating as they sometimes can be with their talkiness and mad narratives. I can forgive all that because I am always exhilarated by where her brain goes. Matt Vickers made a magnificent attempt at grappling with Within The Kiss for online journal Turbine:
Randall's triumph here is getting away with breaking the rules by pointing out the rules as she goes, and ignoring them anyway, to create something very distinct, almost punk, with its tightly-controlled anarchy.
Yes! Great stuff. The Literary Encylopaedia throws up an interesting summary:
Characterised by sardonic and often acerbic narrators, Charlotte Randall’s novels balance a zealous attention to language and vocabulary with mordant observations of the human condition. Her novels aim their critiques at a broad range of subjects, but often return to satirise dubious medical science, pseudo-religious superstitions, and spurious cultural trends. By blending contemporary and historical settings (often within a single narrative) Randall’s novels bring the follies of the past to bear on the present.
The Crocus Hour, published this year, is no different. There are long stretches of monologue and dialogue when Henry - an ascerbic older New Zealander in Crete looking for a daughter who has disappeared - tells a young French backpacker about his search and his theories on what happened. Like her other books, Randall lets Henry talk at length about 'the human condition', and goes on to explore Cretan history, Greek culture and mythology, sexism and genre politics, you name it.
Then, in the second half, it takes us to Henry's home in Christchurch where the backpacker visits him. Here Henry takes his young friend through the history, mythology, geography, culture etc of the South Island of New Zealand while critiquing, amongst other things, the art of natural medicines and hippy culture - you get the picture.
There is the usual wonderful Randall language (but with fewer tricky words this time), marvellous evocations of place and time, and some to-die-for insights into the make-up of human beings. Try this one:
The patient's daughter feels herself to be composed of rage.There is a story unfolding, too. Step by step we get closer to why Henry's daughter disappeared. It's not a straight line, that's all, and it's not totally the point. We digress wildly and wonderfully, and even when we're on track it's hard to tell which track it is. The work of Charlotte Randall reminds me of that line from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem: 'counter, original, spare, strange,' and, in the end, all I can say is what I said at the start, I like spending time with that.
Sunday, October 5, 2008
There's none of that Hollywood face-concrete, long-shots and clever lighting to cover up that fact that Hunt (in her 40's I gather) has lines and isn't 20 anymore. And then there's Colin Firth (divorced husband who fancies her) - who's more dishevelled than D'Arcy-like. Things are unpredictable, messy, and humiliating, children have tantrums and get sore ears, people have 'break-up' sex .... just like real life. The dialogue is great. Oh and watch for a cameo by Salman Rushdie (I kid you not).
In terms of story-telling, I was impressed with the compression at the start of the movie with four scenes: the wedding, the dodgem cars, the mother in hospital and the 'I've made a mistake' scene summing up a stack of stuff about both April's problematic upbringing and her failed marriage.
Some things are glanced at rather than explored in a way that happens with movies that come from books (Elinor Lipman wrote this one), but generally at the end you feel like you've had a complex and satisfying meal rather than the cardboard snacks too often served up at the movies these days.
Here's Wikipedia on the movie and the trailer.
Friday, October 3, 2008
Take the one – the unforgettable one in Gilead – of the burning church and the children under the wooden cart watching, and the parishioners and Ames’ father the vicar are trying to save things from the church. Part way through, he leaves and comes over to his son and gives him some bread.
‘My father brought me some biscuit that had soot on it from his hands. ‘Never mind,’ he said, ‘there’s nothing cleaner than ash.’ But it affected the taste of the biscuit, which I thought might resemble the bread of affliction, which was often mentioned in those days, though it’s rather forgotten now.’ (p.108)Reverend John Ames - Methodist and man of principle - goes on then to talk from the present about how thinking back to hard times enhances the value of them.
‘ … you never do know the actual nature even of your own experience. Or perhaps it has no fixed and certain nature. I remember my father down on his heels in the rain, water dripping from his hat, feeding me biscuit from his scorched hand, with that old blackened wreck of a church behind me and steam rising where the rain fell on embers, the rain falling in gusts and the women singing….It was so joyful and sad. I mention it again because it seems to me much of my life was comprehended in that moment. Grief itself has often returned me to that morning, when I took communion from my father’s hand. I remember it as communion, and I believe that’s what it was.’ (p. 109)Six pages later, after talking about his grandfather and about his son playing ball, Ames says:
‘When things are taking their ordinary course, it is hard to remember what matters. There are so many things you would never think to tell anyone. And I believe they may be the things that mean most to you, and that even your own child would have to know in order to know you well at all. I remember the day in my childhood when I lay under the wagon with the other little children, watching them pull down the ruins of that Baptist Church, and my father brought me a piece of biscuit for my lunch, and I crawled out and knelt with him there, in the rain. I remember it as if he broke the bread and put a bit of it in my mouth, though I know he didn’t. His hands and his face were black with ash – he looked charred, like one of the old martyrs – and he knelt there in the rain and brought a piece of biscuit out from inside his shirt and he did break it, that’s true and gave half to me and are the other half himself. And it truly was the bread of affliction, because everyone was poor then.’
The writing is so precise and so eloquent, so subtle and deliberate, so full of gravity. Robinson winds in and out of an idea, working on it and recreating it, giving it meaning. But not, cleverly not, telling us fully what that meaning is.
Ames talks about how when we die fear and grief will come to nothing and then he says that surely that’s not so because that would mean we’d forgotten that we’d lived. He continues, ‘Sorrow seems to me to be a great part of the substance of human life.’ There is something about this writing – it seems to me that every word is ineluctable, each letter is perfectly formed and leaning on the one before, the ‘o’s’ are rounder than usual, letting the air through like a deep sigh.
Robinson is a writer who does that Henry James thing: 'No themes are so human as those that reflect for us, out of the confusion of life, the close connexion of bliss and bale..' Which is also very much the theme of my week, which is why I've thought of Gilead, perhaps, a book I read in 2005. You see, my son Paul is 20 today which is cause for huge celebration, and yet a week ago, my friend Kirk (47) took his own life by stepping out in front of a 160kph train. It appears the melt-down in the financial markets is to blame.
This post is adapted from my reading journal for the MA in Creative Writing at Victoria University(2005). Marilynne Robinson also wrote the award-winning Housekeeping (1980) and has just published Home which has many of the same characters as Gilead but is not meant to be a sequel. And here is an in-depth interview with her courtesy of the Paris Review.
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
Here's Julia's story:
Last weekend it was sunny and Tom and I cycled down to the waterfront. I'm attaching some pictures I took of 'Blue' in front of something recognizably Portland, in this case the Steel Bridge. Not quite as famous as the Taj Mahal, but it's actually interesting to transportation enthusiasts, as it is one of the few rail + automotive + pedestrian + light rail (runs of different tracks than regular rail) drawbridges in the world. And according to Wikipedia, "It is the only double-deck bridge with independent lifts in the world". http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steel_Bridge
Julia is a web designer with a terrific-looking website, and she's writing a novel, I gather. Thanks, Julia, for the pic. I'm interested in bridges at the moment as there's one in my new novel - nothing like the Steel Bridge, but a bridge nonetheless.