Saturday, June 30, 2012

I fell to thinking

Going up a mountain track, I fell to thinking.

How can you resist a novel that begins this way?

Natsume Soseki's (1867-1916) The Three-Cornered World (or in Japanese, Kusa Makura, or 'The Grass Pillow') is a novel about a traveller, an artist. It is gentle, meandering, philosophical ... everything I like a novel to be. There is a woman in it who is possibly mad, and an artist who wants to paint her. It ends at the point where he thinks he may be able to.

Thank heaven for all those who in devious ways by their art, bring tranquility to the world, and enrich men's hearts.

Amen, says I.

And then there's this delicious bit:

... and because I am an artist I find any passage of a novel interesting even when it is out of context. I find it interesting talking to you - so much so in fact that I'd like to talk with you every day while I'm here. I'll even fall in love with you if you like; that would be particularly interesting. But however deeply I were to fall in love with you it would not mean that we would have to get married. If you think that marriage is the logical conclusion to falling in love, then it becomes necessary to read novels through from beginning to end.

So here's to not reading novels through from beginning to end. Here's to novels with little incident and rich with imagery that allow you to reflect and enjoy without rushing or reaching towards a conclusion. 

Friday, June 22, 2012


Canty's secondhand bookstore, Fyshwick, Canberra.

Asleep, by Banana Yoshimoto. Have I read this?

I ask the former potter. Is this the book? Is this the book where the girl goes to visit a sick girl living in a remote house. It's near a lake. And the girl foretells the future or something. She's taken there by a boy, the girl's brother. And there's something about their mother?

Is that a banana book? Or a Murakami?

He shakes his head. He doesn't know.

The trouble is, I have trouble remembering what I've read. And I don't retain things - just the atmosphere, and one or two things. Makes rereading an adventure.

I buy the Banana book.

The National Library, Canberra: The Life of Patrick White.

Born 1912. Died 1990. Exactly the same as my father. I remember noting this at the time.

 Little Paddy's letters to the fairies, and to Santa. He wants a heap of things, including 'a little mouse that runs across the floor'. He hopes Santa won't think him greedy, but he does want these things so badly. I start to laugh - I want to laugh right out loud but people would look at me. (Since when have I worried about this?)

Paddy dressed at The Mad Hatter. Side on, striding: a formal shot.

Paddy's asthma improved so much when he went to the Blue Mountains that his mother bought a house at Winmalee.

Patrick White's manuscripts, in a loose, flowing hand. Plays he wrote.

Portraits of Patrick.

Photos of Patrick and Manoly. During the war, when they met. With their dogs.

His black knitted beanie with a pom pom on top. A photo of him in the beanie.

A re-creation of his study in London. His desk with long drawers. His typewriter, though he wrote in longhand.

Typed letters from Patrick.

The letter where he de-friends Geoffrey Dutton. 'I've had enough of Duttonry.'

Patrick with actors and actresses.

First editions of his books. Happy Valley, soon to be reprinted for the first time. I want a copy of this.

Patrick and Manoly in their kitchen in Centennial Park.

Patrick's Nobel Prize medal, and the certificate.

I pick up free postcards at the exit/entrance. Paddy as Mad Hatter. I recall that Roky Erickson also fancy- dressed as the mad hatter as a child. There's a picture of him in the cd booklet and on the cd of True Love Casts Out all Evil. 

A bookmark. Patrick White's glasses. How apt.

He saw things differently. He makes us see differently. That's what a great writer does. He didn't like people much. He loved them so much he thought some were transcendent.

The National Portrait Gallery, Canberra:

More portraits of Patrick White. Nick Cave. The original of the William Dargie portrait of Elizabeth 11 that hung in every school.

The original picture for the Nimrod poster of Mo Rene by Martin Sharp. Martin Sharp by Gary Shead.

A photo of Lee Lin Chin, from SBS. Aboriginal Australians well represented.

Many of portraits of notable Australians. Princess Mary of Denmark. Just marry a Danish Prince. Or write nobel prize-winning books.

The former potter as we go out: That's a big building to house a few pictures.

We walk in mist around the lake. 11 degrees, and gloomy. It's not too bad. The carillon chimes. And now we're getting damp. Go into the National Gallery.

We walk around briskly.  Indoor walking track. In case of wet weather. We know this place like the backs of our hands, as they say.  Matisse. Waterlilies. The haystack. That sculpture by Modigliani. The Ballets Russes costumes. That collage by Picasso. The Asian art. The decorative arts.

Near the loos, photographs of early expeditions to Antarctica. Horses and dogs on board the ship. The huskies curled up, asleep. The animals suffered dreadfully on the long trip.

We head down the escalator. It comes to me what the book was. The Lake, I say. That book was The Lake, by Banana Yoshimoto. The one with the brother and sister, and the girl who knows them. The house was beside a lake.

I haven't read that one, says the former potter.

Last night, back at home, 1000 km or so to the north of Canberra, I started Asleep, by Banana Yoshimoto. After a few pages, I went to sleep.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

faking it

My first poems were experiments; I built them on borrowed rhythms; I was a dedicated tinkerer, putting together the shapes and ideas which I shoplifted. And images. Like people who excel at crossword puzzles, I found that I could, with a little jiggling, produce images of quite startling vividness. My first poems (pomes) were lit with a whistling blue clarity (emptiness) and they were accepted by the first magazine I sent them to. Only I knew what paste-up jobs they were, only I acknowledged my debt to a good thesaurus, a stimulating dictionary and a daily injection, administered like Vitamin B, of early Eliot.
I, who manufactured the giddy dark-edged metaphors, knew the facile secret of their creation. Like piecework I rolled them off. Never, never, never did I soar on the winds of inspiration; the lines I wrote, hunched over the card table in that grubby, poorly ventilated apartment, were painstakingly assembled, an artificial montage of poetic parts. I was a literary con-man, a quack, and the size of my early success was amazing, thrilling and frightening.

But after Watson left us, after he walked out on Seth and me, poetry became the means by which I saved my life. I stopped assembling; I discovered that I could bury in my writing the greater part of my pain and humiliation. The usefulness of poetry was revealed to me; all those poets had been telling the truth after all; anguish could be scooped up and dealt with. My loneliness could, by my secret gift of alchemy, be shaped into a less frightening form. I was going to survive - I soon saw that - and my survival was hooked into my quirky, accidental ability to put words into agreeable arrangements. I could even remake my childhood, that great void in which nothing had happened but years and years of shrivelling dependence. I wrote constantly, and I wrote, as one critic said, "from the floor of a bitter heart."

And the irony, the treachery really, was that those who wrote critical articles on my books of poetry never- not one of them- distinguished between those poems I had written earlier and those that came later.

Carol Shields, The Box Garden, 1977

This is a book I return to again and again (bit of a theme in the attic, really) and it's this passage that I remember the most, that I turn to because of what it says about writing, the beauty and the pity of it. I love the narrator of this book, Charleen Forrest, dignified, poverty-stricken poet and brilliant mother, with her unruly dark hair and twisted toe, and the certainty that she will never be brave. I love her gentle, accommodating son Seth.

(An aside: Sister Book

There is a companion book to this, Small Ceremonies, where the narrator is Charleen's sister Judith Gill, successful biographer and failed novelist. This book is also about writing, a comedy of errors and cross-purposes, about the deviousness and desperation of writers, the stealing of plots (or perhaps not), the using of other people's lives as material.)

"Soaring on the wings of inspiration"

I have soared (I have also struggled - more on that later) - and it's an exhilarating feeling, page after page rolling out effortlessly under your fingers. "Don't stop to think of words" advised Jack Kerouac, and it's true, when you know what you're writing, there is no need to stop, and the words come, unbidden almost, not separate to your thoughts, but part of them.

Mathematicians say that they know when an equation is right because of the beauty of it, and writing is the same: there's a rightness to the expression - it flows, therefore it is.

I remember soaring when I wrote parts of Little Wing - the episode where Emmy leaves Matt and the baby behind, and goes on a bus to Sydney. Also the part where on Christmas day she finds herself in a park alone and a creepy man sits down near her, and follows her - she comes to a Catholic church, and imagines going inside. But then she thinks, Enough! and tells him to stop following her, and leaves.

When these parts of the book were edited I remember page after page without an editor's mark on them, they were so sure of themselves.

(Interestingly, Little Wing is the only one of my books not nominated for a single award, when all the others have had several.)  So do people notice when you soar?

1952 Vincent Black Lightning

I can also remember trudging, one painful word after another, unable to get going, unable to think what I want to say.

At times like these I resort to games. I came to a part of My Candlelight Novel where I couldn't move it forward, however I tried. It was like taking a horse to a jump, and it refusing.

There was a song I was listening to at the time: Richard Thompson's '1952 Vincent Black Lightning', a song about a man, a woman, and a motorbike.

James says to Red Molly:

"... and I've seen you in the cafes and on corners, it seems/ Red hair and black leather, my favourite colour scheme."

I took some of these words and started sentences with them, or used them in some way.

This resulted:

She came in barefoot, and padded softly around the room with her hands in the back pockets of her trousers. Finally, she perched on the windowsill. Black sky stood out behind her. Hair as red as hers was a perfect foil for the black. And the short cut suited her, even if she had done it herself. Red walls, red hair, black sky. Perfect.
"Marjorie in leather pants," I said. "Who'd have thought it?"

Waste not, want not 

A novel is such a voracious beast. It can swallow everything your imagination can come up with and then demand more; I sometimes find myself asking people about their lives and writing it down in an effort of get material. I'm shameless about this.

And sometimes you write something that goes nowhere. Seems such a waste. A whole novel, abandoned. Nice bits in it though.

So a part of it - just a part - might be good material for something you're working on now. It's like taking an old, outmoded dress with fabric you like, unpicking it, and making it into something else.

Waste not, want not.

Carol Shields is right. Writers can be devious and desperate. They'll use anything they can get their hands on. They soar on the wings of inspiration, and they shoplift and cobble things together. Some work is written from experience and emotion that mean something essential to the writer (even if they don't know why they are writing it), some is manufactured as product.

And critics can never (rarely?) tell the difference.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

This compost

When I was a child I used to be filled with envy when adults recalled the events of twelve or fifteen years before. I would think it must be marvellous, to issue these proclamations of experience - 'It was at least ten years ago', or 'I hadn't seen him for twenty years'. But chronological prestige is tenacious: once attained, it can't be shed; it increases moment by moment, day by day, pressing its honours on you until you are lavishly, overly endowed with them. Until you literally sink under them.
A centenarian has told me that memory protects one from this burden of experience. Whole segments of time dropped out, she said: 'Of five or six years, say, around the turn of the century, all I can remember is the dress someone wore, or the colour of a curtain.' And I would be pleased, rather than otherwise, at the prospect of remembering Naples in similar terms - a lilac dress Gioconda wore one morning driving to Caserta, or the Siena-coloured curtains of the apartment in San Biagio dei Librai.
Shirley Hazzard, The Bay of Noon, 1970

Do you realise that we've achieved this 'chronological prestige'? It's almost thirty two years since you handed this book on to me. I was 28, and so you must have been 20. I wonder if many young women these days read Shirley Hazzard.

Do you remember? It was in Campbelltown in late 1980 - I remember because T and I were staying with your parents before heading overseas.

And I think you did just 'hand it on'. You'd bought it second-hand and read it - I can't remember you saying anything about it, you just gave it to me quite casually and quietly - but I diligently wrote your name in the front, in pencil (I'm very good at giving books back).

Though I never did with this one. I like it too much - and I like this particular copy, which I've just pulled out from the shelves yet again.

I seldom read it cover to cover now - just read all my favourite bits - such as when Jenny first goes to Gioconda's house in the street of the booksellers, and when she moves into her apartment overlooking the Bay of Naples. This is my preferred method of reading - perhaps it's why I'm so bad at chronology and plot in my own writing. I'd like to simply write down scenes, put them in a box and let the reader read the book in whatever order they choose.

I've written about this novel before, and gave my copy to Sophie in My Candlelight Novel.

On that trip to Europe we planned to go to Naples, but it was hit by an earthquake while we were still in London and we changed our plans. So the only part of Italy I've ever been to was my one day in Venice (half a day really) while we waited for our train to Athens. It doesn't seem to matter - I doubt if the real Naples would have measured up to the Naples in this book.

And now the book itself has gained a considerable chronological prestige. Pages are coming loose, the spine is peeling away, and this time when I got it from the shelves I found that wasps had built nests all the way along one edge of the pages. I had to blow the dirt from those nests away as I read.

If you forgot this book and left it under a tree, it would very soon return to the earth: would gently and quietly revert to its vegetable state. But I won't be doing that with it.  I think this book and I have a few more years in us yet.