SPIKING THE PIKE

SPIKING THE PIKE

 

I have been attempting to read Lucy Hughes Hallet’s The Pike. I’m finding it hard going and were it not for a book group and chosen by a friend of mine, I would have abandoned it already. I am amused to discover after three attempts at it, that each time I give up on the same page – which reminds me how I was never able to read the Diary of Richard Crossman beyond page 46 despite repeatedly trying.

 

This makes me consider diary writing and I have to confess that mine is not what it used to be. Possibly I channel my energy more into blogs, but perhaps now I am older I am beginning to learn the art of discretion. I have ever been a woman well able to keep a secret, and have never been in the habit of revealing the whole of my thoughts, but when I was younger I used to write pretty much the unadulterated truth of what I thought on subjects I was prepared to commit to my diary.

 

But now I am older and can more readily see a time when I may be gone and my papers (if I preserve them) will be in the hands of others and that people I love may well be hurt by passing comments which amounted to no more than a rock of irritation in a vast ocean of love for them. When you love people, you look at them and think of them a lot, and it is only natural you will occasionally be irritated or anxious about them.

 

D’Anunzio, (the Pike) was very gifted and this can be a problem for the holder of the gifts – what is he to do with them? I have long suspected that ‘ambition’ – that quality held in such high esteem in the 21st century, is in fact of doubtful morality.

 

Recently I had a conversation with a friend of mine (whose wise opinions are greatly valued by me) as to whether we should have made more of a mark on the world with our talents. He is a practical person, whose working life was one of dealing with practical problems, but he is also very clever and astute, insightful and reflective, artistic, gifted in many directions which are not immediately obvious. I thought about this a lot afterwards and I came to the conclusion that our measuring rod for success in life is warped and deceiving.

 

To have arrived at old age with wisdom, charity and dignity, able to support with unobtrusive love and affection the people around you; to be an elder of your tribe, able to receive their assistance graciously but standing like a great tree on their horizon, still holding on to all that you ever valued; to have seen something of life and to have enjoyed it and still be able to laugh at its oddities; and to have acquired some wisdom and humility in the process – how could you have accomplished anything more? (I do not include myself in this august body; I only aspire to this happy condition.)

 

So perhaps one’s accomplishments in life need not be measured in riches or honours or fame? For those who achieve these things, all credit to them, but the best heroes. the real ones, are almost always unsung.

 

As for D’Annunzio, he was not a pike. A pike is a fish with an honest interest in survival. D’Annunzio, despite his dazzling gifts, was a fraud and a leader of men to destruction, a cad and a bounder. In a well written biography, you have confidence in the integrity and judgement of the author but Hughes Hallet refuses to be ‘judgemental’ about her subject, despite his repugnance. The writing does not have an orderly flow. She opines that ‘the beginning is seldom the best place to start’. I think, madam, that you’ll find that it is.

So now I’m scrabbling about for my usual conclusion, but I can’t find one. Maybe I’m finally learning that there isn’t necessarily a conclusion? That there is always more to learn? That life just runs on like the Thames, whether you’re swimming or drowning?

My conclusion is that should I ever have another stab at Crossman’s diary I should start on page 47.

And The Pike? I’ll spike it.

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WRITING STYLE

My cousin, Sheena, herself a writer, was talking to me recently about writing ‘style’ and I had to admit that it was a subject I had barely considered.

I have always found the written word easy to produce (and to assimilate) and I often prefer to communicate in writing rather than in a personal interview.   If what you’re going to say is  difficult or complex, you have time to consider it carefully and lay it out thoughtfully.   You cannot be interrupted during the process nor do you have to deal with the other person’s emotional responses.   They in their turn have time to think over their reaction and response.   And if the subject were a major or significant issue, you would of course in your written communication, offer to see them in person if they wished.

It would appear to anyone watching me that I sit down to my machine (or take up my notebook) and write immediately and at length with neither hesitation nor preparation.  This is not true.   I will probably have ‘written’ the piece several times in my head, reshaping it, deciding on the ending (which is much easier than the beginning), trying out and discarding phrases.   So when it comes to the actual writing, I’ve already ‘written’ several drafts.   At this stage, I rarely rewrite and what I put down largely stands.   I sometimes shuffle the sentences.   When the piece is completely written, I may check if certain things are accurate and whether my conclusion is fair.    Occasionally I pass the article in front of John.   He rarely alters more than a word or two and he has never said, don’t publish it;  if he did then probably I wouldn’t.  He never makes any comment on my writing style.

And yet writing style is as distinctive as walking, is it not?   We can identify the footstep of those we love out of thousands of steps, yet it would be very difficult to describe how we pick it out.   John’s step is fast, long and surprisingly light, yet that description which is the best I can give would in no way help others to recognise it.    Yet I can identify his coming from afar off, the sound of his step leaping out at me from the background cacophony, even when I am not listening for it.    No-one else’s step, not even those of his sons, sounds like it.

Nowadays in our communications, we’ve mostly lost the intimate give away of the actual handwriting from which conclusions about the personality, education, age, emotional state and physical well being of the writer can all be drawn.     (Mind you, erroneous conclusions can be reached as when the foolhardy Mrs Beck had her latest au pair’s (me!) handwriting analysed and was reassured to learn that she was capable, honest and reliable – which I hope was true – but was not informed that she was of an independent nature, not inclined to do what she was told, not easily impressed and deeply resentful of invasions of privacy, and not especially anxious to please.    I wonder if the analyst saw that and held her tongue, or whether she was just a charlatan and said what her client wished to hear?   Once Mrs Beck told me she had had my handwriting analysed, although I made no comment, our relationship was doomed.   This happened as we drove out of the airport.)

Yet even the typed word has a certain style.   Over the winter, Sheena sent me a long email while she was ill and had a high temperature.   Although her comments were perfectly lucid, they conveyed that fevered, glittering, restless, burning up element of a fever, and I became quite concerned about her.   (She is fine now.)

I would guess, if a writer thought too much about style, he or she would become stilted or over-worked.   Personally I find if you lose a piece of writing (the wretched computer can have its downside), you can never reproduce it quite so well again.   The original has its own freshness and style that can never be recaptured.

Although obviously it’s part of the tools of a writer to have an extensive vocabulary, I find it extremely irritating when people use an obscure or long word when a more common word would express the concept perfectly accurately.   The point of writing is to convey an idea;  to mount an argument;  to persuade to a point of view;  to point something out, and that should hopefully be done in such a way that the reader both grasps the point easily, and gets pleasure in the process.   It shouldn’t, ever, be about displaying how clever you are.   Writers have a lamentable tendency to this weakness;  some quite  distinguished writers suffering from this difficulty.   In my view, in the case of the late Ian Banks, it was forgivable;  in Ian McEwan it is (just about) tolerable; and in Jeanette Winterston it is unbearable, in part because she frequently uses the rare word incorrectly.

Speaking for myself (and this is regarded as a great fault by people advising you how to sell a written work), I don’t really think about the reader at all.   I assume he or she is educated and intelligent, and if interested in the subject will consider it and come to their own conclusion.   I am frequently surprised by other people’s reactions, and I never have the slightest idea which blogs will arouse alot of interest and which will not.

So now I think I’ve said all I have to say on this subject, and I’ll do what I invariably do, and which is also regarded as a grievous fault by certain people.   I’ll come to a conclusion.   (What’s the point in writing if you don’t come to a conclusion?)

Style is good if you have it, but its substance that counts.

 

 

ON BEING COMMON PLACE

 

I’ve been reading ‘Georgian Literature’ by Frank Swinnerton.   I’m not entirely sure why he calls the book ‘Georgian Literature’, since it includes essays on some writers who are certainly not Georgian (eg D H Lawrence.)

 

Swinnerton is a good critic and a writer of clear and thoughtful prose.   (Also in his favour is that almost  without exception his learned opinions tally with my own conclusions!)   He wrote some fiction which I shall in due course sample, but the skills of weaving fiction, and of assessing other people’s work, are completely different arts.

 

It was Swinnerton’s remarks about Henry James that I found most thought provoking.

 

I feel I ought to begin by apologising for even beginning a critical assessment of the great Henry James.    His intellect was magisterial and vast.   His judgements on anything are usually extremely accurate and with a wide and subtle understanding.   He is acutely observant and well versed in the nuances of other people’s motives and actions.    His writing is superb, and he was entirely dedicated to his art.     And yet, and yet….  you know he is a virtuoso but there is something lacking.

 

Summerton asserts that the people James writes about are ‘common place’.   I am not sure about this.   Are we not all ‘common place’ in our inner chamber?   Is it indeed not desirable that we should indeed be common place?  After the battle, the siege, the great crises of one’s life, when one has gone out and acted as hero, as priest, healer, soldier, prince – whatever it is that you are when the inner trumpet sounds and you realise that however unwilling or unready you are, now is the moment when you must go out and BE whatever it is that you are – after these brief scenes, though they are the purpose and apotheosis of one’s whole life – you must, if you are to live, return to ordinary life, where you have to be ‘common place’.   You cannot be a hero (in an active sense) every day of your life.   Some days you just have to make soup.    Besides which, days need to be left for other people to be heroes!

 

I think however Swinnerton’s comments are insightful.   What I had thought (not so magisterially put) was that James had failed because he was too concerned about Art and not enough about Life.   As Swinnerton says, Henry James’ experience was of Life as Art, and not as Real Life.

 

It is as though Henry James were writing about a picnic.   Instead of recollecting picnics he had enjoyed, remembering the hard ground, the smell of the cut grass, the feel of the sun and wind upon his skin, how one’s back grew weary, how wonderful food tasted out of doors, the wasps, the coolness of the water – his recollections of a picnic are of Le Dejeuner sur L’Herbe by Manet.

 

Henry James worshipped at the altar of Art, but it was the wrong altar.    In a sense, he lacked the robust and down to earth elements of the common place.   He was ALWAYS the great man of literature (and indeed he was.)   But it would have been better, he would have been greater, if he had on some days, just flung his paper, pen and books aside, and gone out to be a man.

E F BENSON

Since being given, by my children, a Kindle, I’ve acquired a bad habit (to add to my many other ones) of purchasing books in the middle of the night during periods of sleepless boredom.  At such times you are probably more inclined to re-read some known and liked author rather than venture into the unknown territory of an untried author.  My latest purchase was a collection of the Mapp and Lucia novels by E F Benson, to the delights of which I was first introduced, years ago, by my erudite friend Elizabeth, now of Oxford.

They tell of English small town (really village) life – a subject of which I know practically nothing.   The period covered is one in which well ordered households still rejoiced in servants – parlour maids, cooks, gardeners.   Although you might think this would be a  cosy subject, in fact internecine wars are waged, campaigns fought, battles lost and won – all over significant issues such as who will play Queen Elizabeth 1 in a summer tableau.

One of the pleasures of reading this novel is that the house occupied at various times by both Mapp and Lucia is that of the novelist himself, Lamb House in Rye, East Sussex.      (This house was also occupied at an earlier period by the more famous author, Henry James.)    This  house is open under the National Trust scheme, although on a very restricted basis, so although it would not be entirely accurate to say it was only open when the moon was full, the wind was in the east, and it was a Wednesday with a P in the month, it certainly feels like this whenever you try to storm its barriers.   However, the actual house and the wider town of Rye are described with great accuracy in the novels and the recognition of these features is one of the pleasures of the books.    They are nicely observed, and very funny.

I recommend E F Benson.

TROLLOPEs

TROLLOPES

I’ve been reading, mostly in the early hours of morning over  the last few months, the entire works of Anthony Trollope, and now alas I’ve come to the end of them.   Forty seven of his novels I’ve enjoyed, plus some travel writing, some criticism and an autobiography.

Now I’ve passed on to Thomas Hardy, and I loathe the man personally as much as I loved Trollope.   It’s not that there aren’t good things about Hardy.   His power of conveying in all its transient beauty the short period where England passed from being an agricultural community to an industrial one, is second to none, and his use of metaphor is superb.    ‘Curls nestled under her bonnet like swallows’ nests under the eaves of a house’ …    But skilled writing  should flow across your consciousness as though it were a stream slipping past your hand as you dabbled it in the water, whereas Hardy’s is  laboured and creaks from the effort.   His women are insufferable – stupid, ignorant, weak, inferior creatures – and his men are arrogant on the one hand  – they know so much more than the women! – and needful and self conscious on the other.

Whereas Trollope knows the value of money and understands at a glance the exact nuances of the English class system (which though to a lesser extent still functions down to this day) – he also understands what it is to be a lady or gentleman (although even he himself cannot define that precisely in words) – he knows that the real value of people has nothing to do with either wealth or rank.

Hardy on the other hand wasn’t a gentleman in either the class sense or in any other sense, and his view of the class system was distorted because he resented his place in it and sought to improve it.   You trust Trollope’s judgement, absolutely, whereas Hardy’s is you feel, highly subjective and unreliable.

Finally, you care about Trollope’s characters and want them to come to a happy ending, which, Trollope being a fine and truthful novelist, is not always guaranteed.    Hardy’s characters are not entirely believable;  you don’t like them and you couldn’t care less what happens to them.

I had previously subscribed to the criticism levelled at Trollope: that his plots rolled along without much planning by him, just episodic as it were, and in support of this is cited the alleged story that Trollope killed off the dreadful Mrs Proudie, the Bishop’s overbearing wife who ran the diocese with a feeble and acquiescent husband, when dared to do so by someone at his club.    It is true that viewing only external events, Mrs Proudie’s death is entirely unexpected.   But re-reading that novel recently, I do not think the criticism is  fair, for Mrs Proudie is undone by the refusal of a man she despises, poor and in danger of being (unfairly) disgraced, to bow down before her spurious authority.   He dismisses her from the Bishop’s study and addresses her as ‘Woman’ and she finds herself with no alternative but to leave.    She is powerless before his virtue and incorruptibility and so she dies (of a heart attack shortly afterwards.)      On reflection I do not think this is evidence of a haphazard  approach to his plots, but indicates his power and subtlety.

So, I can’t decide whether to abandon Hardy now and save myself annoyance, or to read on and hope I come to appreciate his merits more?   After all, I can’t just keep re-reading Trollope for the rest of my life.   Can I?

DOUBLE STAR

DOUBLE STAR 

 

I am  very fast reader, and along with this go some bad habits.

I was surprised recently to discover how idiosyncratic people are in their reading habits.   It’s a  private activity – you just tend to assume that everyone does as you do.   This is not, however, the case.

For example, I do not read the book literally from cover to cover, beginning with what’s written on the inside of the dust jacket, through the ISBN number, to the end.   I do not identify the middle page of the book.   I do not count the pages and divide the time available into a so many pages per day target.    I am not compelled to stop reading only at the end of chapters.

When I read a book, I start with the opening words of the work.  I don’t read forewards, introductions, later qualifications by the author, learned expositions from experts, HRH Prince Philip saying what a wonderful book it is.    I want to form my own opinion.  I’ll read all the above later, if I’m still interested in the work.

I’m hard to please and easily bored.   If I find sections tedious, I fast forward through them, just slow enough to establish where the plot changes.    You can come across whole chapters on the delights of hunting in novels by Trollope where the relevance to the plot is our hero fell off as he jumped the hedge and broke his collar bone.   And I defy anyone to have read all the lack lustre poetry in A S Byatt’s Possession.   Sometimes I  abandon books altogether in despair or irritation, and quite often I read the final page to see if it’s worth the bother of proceeding.

But if I read a book I really enjoy, in my mind I give it a Double Star rating.   This means I will have read it at my usual breakneck speed.   I will have read it in between tasks, last thing at night, early in the morning.   In these books  I don’t read pages out of order or fast forward.   When I come to the end, I close the book and I don’t read anything else for a day or two.   Then I start again from the beginning, reading every single word slowly and carefully.

Very few books are in receipt of this award.   There are certain books I regularly re-read (perhaps once every decade.)    These would include the works of Jane Austen, anything by J R R Tolkein, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenin, Thackery’s Vanity Fair…   but the Double Rated books are rare;  perhaps once a year I might come across such a one.    They have included:  Bird Song, by Sebastian Faulks;   Falling by Colin Thuberon;  A Map of the World by Jane Hamilton;  The Swimming Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst (Warning: Not to everybody’s taste).

This week, another winner.   Ann Patchet, State of Wonder.   I recommend it.

SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF

SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF

 

I wake up early in the morning and begin reading If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo
Calvino.   It’s on my list – no idea why.   (I’m ploughing through, on my list from several years ago, a whole tranche of books on essays on English literature, so it is possible it was suggested as an example of a type of
novel.)

So, the Calvino.   It’s a tease.  So far it’s about the process of reading a novel, and our expectations are continually dashed.    It’s as if the author stood behind you, continually looking over your shoulder and interrupting.    It is amusing, clever, different.   I arrive at page 34, however and now I am becoming irritated.    I am famously (or notoriously depending on where you stand) fast to a decision, and readily  bored, and I find abandoning things very easy.    John (and my friend Anne) want their money’s worth;   they can see things through to the bitter end;  and I can see the virtue of that viewpoint too, so I have quite often sat through things with them that left to my own devices I would have left after 15 minutes.    (They rarely do improve, but at least if you stay, you know you gave them every chance.)

We once went to a summer production of the Tempest in a nearby garden, Anne, Carolyn, Nan on a visit
from Scotland and most of our spouses.   I read the production notes, and announced, Let’s go now.   Of course I was over-ruled, and we had an enjoyable evening together, and saw the play.   The staging was very good; the acting was quite acceptable; the costumes were wonderful – but the production failed, because the director (in my opinion) had no idea at all what the play was actually about.

Anyway, I leave the Calvino to do other things and return to it later but it is no use.   Once you arrive at that state where the unspoken collaboration between writer and reader has dissolved, then the novel
turns, as in fairy stories, to ashes in your hands.    That suspension of disbelief, so essential for enjoyment of a novel, has been lost.    This author is extremely intelligent and erudite and he can present his material in any disguise he chooses.      He interrupts himself; he leads us up blind alleys;  he loses us in city badlands and leaves us with neither money nor a map.   He plays a game of cat and mouse.   But of course
this is a game only the author can win, since he is writing the drama.   As I proceed, I come to dislike him, and I do not wish to play the only role allocated to the reader:  the manipulated object.

After about 60 pages I begin to ‘skiff’.     To skiff means to row across a body of water in a small boat, so I don’t know quite why I misuse this word – perhaps there is the suggestion of just slipping along on the
surface of things, for I mean I turn the pages of the book, looking to see if anything jumps out and stops me in my progression through the pages; when I get to the end, I read the last page.      It is as I suspected – there is no story.     I wonder if this creation – rather like the froth on a coffee, but without the coffee – was easier to produce than an actual novel.

To add insult to injury, I find a few comments have been pencilled in on the final pages.   I loathe any markings on a book.   These are difficult to read.   They don’t make sense as they stand, nor can
I find any meaningful connection between the notes and the text.    When I find myself squinting at the page to determine whether the notes are actually an authorial device, I think Paranoia alert!   This book isn’t good for the reader – open at your peril.   Or actually, don’t.   It’s not worth the bother.

This author is too clever for me.

PS   When I consult the oracle (ie the internet) this is a famous ‘post modernist’ puzzle.    Sting
named one of his albums after it, which places it just about where I figured it should go.