Wednesday, November 21, 2012


Dear Mr Blue,
I have been a voracious reader since childhood, devouring fiction, history, science, philosophy, like a vacuum cleaner. I'm the only person I know who's read everything by Sartre, Simeon, Dickens, Trollope, Patrick O'Brien, and Jean M. Auel.  I've read the Koran, the Buddhist canon, the C. H. Mackintosh commentaries on the Bible, Beowulf, the Icelandic sagas. And now, at the age of 48, I seem to have crashed. I have not opened a book in the past two years. It doesn't interest me. I look at the books on my coffee table and they're like bricks to me. Any ideas?


Dear Scorched, No sin to be aliterate. There's a whole world out there that writers write about that you can discover for yourself. Cooking, travel, clinical depression, exile, self-destructive behaviour, the accumulation of vast wealth, inappropriate romance, just to name seven. I'm on the other side of the canyon from you, a writer who is staring at a blank page and trying to figure out how to make a brick out of it. Someday, somebody should  bring nonwriters together with nonreaders to see what they have to say to each other.

From Love Me, by Garrison Keillor

My friend Sue blew in from Brisbane on the weekend, bearing mangoes and other gifts.
'You know I'm not a reader,' she said cheerfully, giving me a copy of Love Me, 'but I loved this.'

It's true, Sue doesn't read. Though years ago she gave me a copy of John Updike's Rabbit, Run and said fervently, 'If you read only one sentence...'

I read the whole book and saw what she meant. Updike's sentences are superb.  What a stylist.

But Garrison Keillor ... I've heard excerpts from his radio show and didn't like him. And this book ... would I be able to read it?

I was (and am) in the middle of Yukio Mishima's Forbidden Colours, about a famous nasty old Japanese writer who, to take his revenge on womankind, bribes a beautiful young homosexual man to break their hearts ...  a pretty amazing book to have been written in the early 1950s, since there is a great deal in it about homosexual beats and bars in Japan. But I find it hard to 'get' at times, the people are so strange, and well, horrible.

So I needed a 'light read' and dipped into Love Me at once. This is also about a writer, a man who had one best-selling book and then went to write for the New Yorker. His wife, a social worker, was happy living in the same old house and run-down suburb in St Paul, Minnesota, and didn't want to go with him, chasing fame and glamour in New York; she is a person for whom things are 'good enough' (you can see where this is heading at once).

And then he finds he can't write a thing, and takes on a part-time job doing an advice column for a small regional paper.

There is so much lovely bitchy stuff about writers and writing in this book. Real writers are mentioned here, and I would hazard a guess that some of the stuff about them is real and some made up. Writers like A. B. White and Updike and Salinger drift through the corridors of the New Yorker, and you want to say to them all, get a life!

But it was the concept of aliteracy that struck me. It's the first time I've heard the term used.

We all know people who are aliterate. People who can read, but just don't want to. Many of these people have tertiary qualifications. They don't see the point of the exercise.

Sometimes I read myself to a standstill, so I understand what Scorched was getting at.  Enough reading! I say, and go out and garden, or cook ... but so far, after a break, I always come back to books. They don't remain bricks to me for long.

And after Love Me, I'm itching to get back to something meatier. Like that dreadful Forbidden Colours, which makes me see what the point of reading and writing is.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Writing under the influence

The young Patrick White apparently admitted that 'he was very much under the influence of Gertrude'; also that he had been 'drunk with the technique of writing' and said that he 'had gone up that cul de sac the stream of consciousness' when he wrote his first novel Happy Valley at the age of 26.

Well, so have we all been much under the influence of Gertrude or perhaps I should only speak for myself. I was so much under the influence of Gertrude while writing About a Girl that, seeing the error of my ways, I rewrote those parts, telling my publisher about the first draft, 'Ignore that; I was under the influence of Gertrude'.

Stein is very influential. To read her makes you think that all other writing is  dull and predictable. You automatically begin writing like Stein - it's infectious. I think the best thing about Gertrude is that she makes writing look like an adventure. Words only mean what you want them to mean and sentences are emotional or is that paragraphs.

"Think of a sentence not however or with a mound but just as pointed and polite and shortly." (Stein: How To Write)

Happy Valley has recently been republished by Text Publishing for the first time since 1939. White never allowed it to be reissued in his lifetime, perhaps because he thought it a juvenile and inferior work, or perhaps because he feared prosecution by the Chinese family he used as a basis for the Quongs of Happy Valley.

It's a novel of small town life. Nearly everyone wants to get out of there. With such a large cast of characters it's inevitable that some will be more appealing than others. I love the piano teacher, 27 year old Alys Browne, who lives alone:

She read too. She had started some of the Russians, Anna Karenina, and Turgeniev, but Tennyson sounded funny now, she could not read him any more. She liked to sit down at tea, and take off her shoes, and read a chapter of Anna Karenina, though sometimes she found it a bit of an effort and lapsed to the Windsor Magazine. Tolstoi was interesting though. She had spilt some tea on the seventy-second page. It gave the book a comfortable, intimate appearance, and she liked it better after that, as if she had always had it with her and had read it several times.
White, Happy Valley, page 46

This is White under the influence of no one but his own brilliant self. There is a chapter in a schoolroom where White has gone up the cul de sac and we get the consciousness of many of the people in the room - it would be heavy-going if the whole of the book was like that, but a schoolroom is the perfect place to explore that technique - all those consciousnesses wanting to be other than where they are - all that lack of focus and wandering thoughts. The very essence of schoolroom.

Happy Valley is said to be set around Adaminaby, in the desperately cold-in-winter and hot-in-summer country to the south of Canberra. I drove through it once and stopped at a park (there is a large concrete trout there: a tourist drawcard?). We saw not one soul in the place, apart from a golden labrador who seemed very interested in our sandwiches. I gave him a raw egg as we departed, cracking it onto the ground, and he lapped it up.