Remember Ali Baba?
He’s the hero of a famous story from The Arabian Nights, the one in which a poor woodcutter (that’s Ali) finds his way into a treasure cave having overheard its keepers (that’s the Forty Thieves) using the password. After taking a little of the loot for himself, Baba shares the command with his brother (that’s Cassim), who utters it himself, drawing back the door and connecting the cave with the world.
I’ve just had a similar experience myself, as it happens, but I got my password from a Baba of a different kind.
I’ve been sick, you see. Not as sick as some, that’s for sure, and yet sick enough to be room-ridden for a month. Normally I’d have been a mess, mentally as well as physically, and my virtual isolation would have hit me hard. I would have seen it as time out of life, as a state of being at odds with my everyday existence.
You know the mentality I mean. It’s the kind of thinking that puts things in opposing camps, compulsively conjuring up dichotomies. Well or unwell. Happy or sad. Hermit or socialite. Loser or legend. It’s like being the ‘living double of a single fiction’, as the more eloquent Elvis (Costello, that is) aptly puts it.
Normally, then, I’d have seen my illness as sign and put an end to my activities. I’m a bipolar being, after all, and opposites attract. And yet I didn’t – thanks, oddly enough, to a literary critic called Homi K. Bhabha.
I met my Baba early in the university year, when I borrowed a book of his essays. I was trying (and failing) to flesh out my skeletal understanding of postcolonial studies, a field that Bhabha, along with two other luminaries, is credited with creating.
In his book, The Location of Culture, Bhabha takes issue with ‘binary logic’, the mode of thought usually associated with the colonial mindset (and with me). He offers, instead, a different interpretation of the imperial past and present.
The colonial realm, Bhabha argues, does not simply give rise to and reinforce ‘parochial polarities’, as many believe. By acting as an in-between place where back-and-forth movement causes ‘domains of difference’ to overlap, the subjugated space ‘opens up the possibility of a cultural hybridity’.
Bhabha’s words came back to me as I lay sick and despairing. Although I wasn’t quite sure what they meant, I said them nonetheless, drawing back the door and connecting my cave with the world.
In doing so I escaped my bipolar mindset. It’s possible, I realised, to be both happy and sad, hermit and socialite, loser and legend. And, yes, I could even be well and unwell at the same time and thus keep my dreams alive. Knowing this, I started studying from my sickbed, ultimately acing my essays and making a success of the semester.
I uttered the password and it opened my mind.
Ali Baba’s brother, Cassim, isn’t so lucky. He forgets the command that would free him from the cave. Unable to escape, he is captured by the robbers, who cut his body into four quarters, ‘to hang two on one side, and two on the other, inside the door of the cave, to terrify any person who might attempt the same thing’.
Without the password Cassim is a man divided. His is a state – and a fate – I hereafter hope to avoid, in sickness and in health.
[Drawing by Joan Kiddell-Monroe]
I’m a good listener.
Be it a sign of curiosity, shyness or low self-esteem – it’s true.
I’m all ears.
It’s why I like asking questions so much and dogs that bark so little.
It’s why I have so many podcast pals.
Let me introduce them.
There’s David, Catherine and Matt from The Tennis Podcast, playful, penetrating and prolific.
Andy and John have been Backlisted for years. Learned and lighthearted, these literary agents provocateurs are so far into old books they’re out of this world.
I Am the Eggpod – that’s Chris. He backtracks through the Beatles with erudition, daftness and fellow devotees.
Then there’s Bob, the mind and mouth behind Music History Monday. Professorial, opinionated and occasionally puerile, he’s the Pied Piper of the musical past.
Ah, it’s easy listening.
So, I’m a student again.
How the hell did that happen?
The usual way. I applied, somewhat blindly, to study Honours at a local university, unsure about my thesis topic and even about my discipline. I mean, how could I choose between literature, creative writing and history?
In the end I didn’t have to. I managed to nab myself a scholarship, one that came with a project attached. Over the next couple of years I’ll be studying the papers of two of Tasmania’s most prolific and unheralded authors (who happen to be siblings).
Fortuitously, the project encompasses my three loves. Coursework aside, I’ll have to produce a thesis (creative writing), exegesis (mostly literary criticism) and some kind of public program (history).
Somehow I chanced upon my holy grail.
What does it mean, being a student again?
That I can’t redraft this blog post to death, for a start. (Not such a bad thing.) I just don’t have the time.
What it really means is that I can live a richer life again – which is ironic because study is costly, scholarship or no scholarship.
Remember the discredited diagram that purports to depict the teaching/learning process? The one that shows a teacher tipping information into a student’s open head?
Well, that’s how I feel, as silly as it sounds. I feel full again – full of ideas and excitement. Full of life.
Take the past week. I’ve had seminars on research and on writing an exegesis. I’ve been reading about and reflecting on literature and history; travel writing, colonialism and displacement.
I’ve been mixing with writers too, having been to workshops led by an acclaimed local author. It’s been immensely inspiring, all the thought and talk about books and writing. It’s brought me back to life.
Returning to study has reopened my mind, and the ideas are already flooding in. Like the kid in the picture, I’m an empty vessel no more.
The next question is: will I drown in the deluge?
Frank Bascombe is my kind of guy. He’s isolated, irrational and unreliable – just like me. He’s a failed novelist – just like me. He’s a successful sportswriter – just like, err, not me. In fact, Frank’s the sportswriter, the figure made famous by American author, Richard Ford, in his novel of the same name.
Frank, he tells us himself, was all set up to have a fine life. Loving wife, great kids, fantastic job – he had them all. But when his eldest son, nine-year-old Ralph, is struck down by a rare brain disease, things start to go horribly wrong. The boy dies, dreadfully. Mired in mourning, Frank’s wife finds letters from a female friend in his desk and sues for divorce, separating Frank from his family.
Now Frank is trapped in a world of his own, isolated from others by his ongoing grief and by the very nature of his vocation – he’s a writer, after all, someone who belongs to a ‘club with just one member’. Frank tries to ‘lose that terrible distance’ by wooing Vicki, a young nurse, but his attempts to ‘simulate intimacy, interest, anticipation’ fail, as they’ve failed before with other women.
Frank’s relationships with men are equally appalling, for he has lost all faith in friendship, that ‘lie of life’. ‘What’s friendship’s realest measure?’ he asks himself. ‘The amount of precious time you’ll squander on someone else’s calamities and fuck-ups.’ When Walter, a fellow divorcee, comes to him seeking consolation, Frank keeps his cool and his distance – with tragic consequences.
It’s an unfashionable approach to friendship and yet one I find fascinating – as I do Frank’s unique way of thinking, which, we discover, is more intuitive than intellectual. Frank admits to having no love of ‘useless and complicated factuality’, he being drawn instead to mystery and all its ‘frail muted beauties’. ‘Explaining,’ he explains, ‘is where we all get into trouble.’
But Frank is in trouble anyway. Despite living largely in his head, he finds himself suffering from a ‘failure of imagination’ – an inability to empathise with others. This, according to Frank, is why he’s a sportswriter and not a novelist. ‘I did not, in fact, know how people felt about most things,’ he says. ‘And needless to say that is the very place where the great writers – your Tolstoys and your George Eliots – soar off to become great.’
Frank’s other endearing quality – to me, at least – is his unpredictability. He’s almost always on the move, racing restlessly from one place to another. If he’s not parked outside his ex-wife’s house, then he’s pulling up in front of a church or making his way to New York on a whim.
Frank’s unreliability – as a character and, I suspect, as a narrator – reminds me of another classic fictional creation: Tom Ripley, Patricia Highsmith’s precocious brainchild. Both characters lack a solid sense of identity and morality; indeed, both seem to have lost their ‘authority’, as Frank puts it.
The problem is that Frank is an idealist stripped of ideals, an ordinary American robbed of his illusions about family, friendship and, finally, the future. For the other character of note in Ford’s novel is the nation itself: America as an idea and an experience. In this sense The Sportswriter is a guide book; it takes us on a tour of Frank’s corner of the country, through New Jersey, Michigan and New York, through ‘literal and anonymous cities’ with all their ‘bricky warp’.
Tellingly, Frank likes nothing better than ‘staring off at the jewelled shore lights of New Jersey, brightening as dark fell, and feeling full of wonder and illusion – like a Columbus or a pilgrim seeing the continent of his dreams take shape in the dusk for the first time’.
At its heart The Sportswriter is a lament: a lament for the loss of innocence. The story speaks of an awakening and thus of the dispelling of a dream – of the American Dream, no less, a dream as familiar to a foreigner like me as it is to a native like Frank. It’s the last and largest thing we have in common.
Whether I like it or not, Frank Bascombe is my kind of guy.
Image courtesy of PxHere
Seen the road to hell lately?
It’s a mess. Paved with good intentions, the path to perdition is littered with bad decisions, the failed forays of famous folk who sought success in a speciality other than their own.
Many are called to cross-over but few are chosen…
Singers and sportsmen, authors and actors – the line of wrecks is long and varied, taking in everything from Ash Barty’s crack at cricket to Chris Cornell’s dalliance with dance-pop.
Now the Tasmanian novelist, Heather Rose, has come a cropper.
Last year Rose published Bruny, the follow-up to her Stella Prize-winning novel, The Museum of Modern Love, a work of literary fiction. Billed as a thriller, her latest book proves that acing a new genre ain’t easy, even for an accomplished author.
What went wrong?
It’s a good question. Bruny appears to have all the hallmarks of a respectable thriller: a preposterous plot, a cast of barely credible characters, an awkward romance and a nondescript style.
And yet it lacks a key component of any self-respecting suspense novel.
Show don’t tell – it’s the shibboleth most closely associated with creative writing. Despite its limitations, this tenet holds true for some books. Take the thriller: readers of this kind of novel need to feel close to the action.
Too often in Bruny the real business takes place in the background, especially as the story goes on. The result? The tension never builds. (And the book garners praise as a ‘satire‘.)
Sadly, some parts of the story kept me on the edge of my seat: namely the narrator’s tiresome tirades about the state of Tasmania. Would they never end?
Despite my reservations – all totally valid, I’m sure, and yet totally irrelevant – Bruny continues to sell well here in Hobart, almost a year after its release.
Which just goes to show: I’m as bad a judge of another writer’s work as I am of my own. Failure is clearly more transferable than success.
Books – they’re a man’s best friend. Patient and eager to please, they lead us into the light.
I realised this recently while convalescing at home, the victim of an illness less of body than mind.
It started with a familiar feeling: I wanted to write – desperately, truly, madly – but I didn’t know what. As I sat and pondered the options, my eye fell on a magazine I’d been reading whose theme is topical.
Okay, I thought, here’s my chance to take a stance on a hot button issue, on the most pressing problem, they say, of our age.
So I settled back to give it some thought.
Gazing out at the clouds racing across the sky – as if I could see the climate changing and not just the weather – I tried to make sense of my impressions.
I’m aware, first of all, of the scientific argument, neatly stated by NASA:
The planet’s average surface temperature has risen about 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit (0.9 degrees Celsius) since the late 19th century, a change driven largely by increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions into the atmosphere.
I know, too, of the consensus in scientific circles, the one in which ninety-seven percent (to be precise) of actively publishing climate scientists agree that ‘climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities’.
The evidence, I realised, should sway me, should spark outrage and action. And yet it doesn’t.
Only a little. Truth be told, I sympathise with the sufferers without being truly touched.
Feeling sick at heart – am I some kind of monster? – I turned away from the window.
In desperation I looked to my bookshelves where, like a dog in waiting, one work leapt out at me: Peter Watson’s Ideas, a history of ideas ‘from fire to Freud’.
Unable to locate ‘climate change’ in the index, I turned at random to the chapter on romanticism. And there, in a book bought fifteen years ago but barely opened since, I found what I was looking for.
The real aim of romanticism, the underlying aim, had been set forth by Keats, who wrote poetry, he said, to ease ‘the burden of the mystery’ . . . Whereas the scientists tried – or hoped – to explain the mystery, the romantics relished it, made the most of it, used it in ways that many scientists could not, or would not, understand.
So, I thought with relief, I’m a romantic.
I mean, the signs are all there.
In my view the world can’t be analysed or fully explained; it can only be experienced directly or seen through a glass, darkly, reflected in the workings of the human mind.
Nature to me is more metaphor than model, even if the metaphor often used is that of a model. ‘We live in a world we create ourselves,’ the philosopher-poet, Johann Herder, once observed. (Herder him?)
Only the arts, I reckon, can ‘ascend to bring light and fire from those eternal regions where,’ Shelley wrote, ‘the owl-winged faculty of calculation dare not ever soar’.
I’ve said as much in a song:
You can cut it all up
And weigh it all out
But when you put it together again
You leave the meaning out
You can test all the theories
Check all the facts
And still the truth
Gonna slip through the cracks
(Nothin’ Adds Up)
Clearly I can’t rely on rationalists – scientists and journalists – to help me make sense of the world: they simply don’t speak my language. I have to look elsewhere for help.
Short of ideas, I turned back to the bookshelf.
This time a play jumped out of the pack: Shakespeare’s King Lear, a story wracked by a fabulous storm. I opened my Arden edition and began to read. Before long I found what I was looking for: ideas and images that made my impressions much clearer.
In Lear the heavens are in tumult because human affairs have fallen into disarray.
‘Nature finds itself scourg’d by the sequent effects,’ the Earl of Gloucester declares.
Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide: in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond crack’d ‘twixt son and father.
Deceived by the fine false words of his two eldest daughters, Lear spurns the one who truly cares but flatters him not.
‘I love your Majesty/According to my bond,’ Cordelia tells him, ‘no more nor less.’
Having broken this bond, Lear is lost; assailed by wild and stormy weather, he wanders the heath, succumbing to madness. Later, when Cordelia is murdered, he dies.
Are we too doomed, I wondered. After all, aren’t we destroying that which sustains us, just like Lear?
But then I pondered the sub-plot of the play, which seemed to say something more. Can we not, I thought, take heart from Gloucester’s fate?
Blinded by egotism – he too has betrayed his one true child – the remorse-ridden Earl is led to the ‘brim’ of a cliff at Dover, where he leaps but does not fall, the actual edge of the precipice being a little way off. Thus is he reunited with his son.
Earlier on Gloucester had, with astonishing insight, given voice to my feelings.
‘Heavens, deal so still!’ he cried,
Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man,
That slaves your ordinance, that will not see
Because he does not feel, feel your power quickly
Greed, profligacy, heartlessness – is it any wonder nature rises against us?
Then, finally, there is Gloucester’s other implicit assertion: that by seeing things feelingly we can reconcile rationalism with romanticism and come to more fully appreciate what we have. This, and a little luck, might keep us one step ahead of oblivion – assuming, of course, that we are perched merely on the ‘brim’ of the precipice and not on its outermost edge.
Feeling better, I took my dog for a walk, safe in the knowledge that books are surely a man’s best best friend. For, unlike our furry favourites, literature guides us through dim thickets of thought and out into the light of the world, the one true home of humanity.
Read all about it: Kindles are the best thing since printed books.
They’re compact, for starters. I once took mine on a five-day walk, slotting it into my pack without any trouble. Thus I was able to while away the evenings reading Clive James’ Complete Unreliable Memoirs, the book of which resembles a brick.
Kindles are food-friendly too. I like to read as I eat and yet most paperbacks make this an impossible feat, even with a sauce bottle on hand to help out. An open Kindle, however, never snaps shut.
The instant free samples are another fine feature, one which has led me to books I wouldn’t have otherwise read. Books like Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come, my novel of 2019.
The best thing about Kindles, though, is the fact they’re not books.
By being so different they make books even better.
‘Call me Ishmael.’
So begins Moby Dick, Herman Melville’s classic tale of whales and whaling, first published in America on this day back in 1851.
The brevity of the book’s opening line is misleading: Melville’s masterpiece has 135 chapters and more than 500 pages, making it a whale-sized story by anyone’s standards.
Was the novel the ‘draft of a draft’, as Melville himself supposedly suggested? If so, his editor ought to have taken a harpoon to the text.
Melville had a tough time as a kid. Money was short, his eyesight was weakened by fever, and the lad had trouble impressing his father, who described him as being ‘backward in speech and somewhat slow in comprehension’.
Melville’s success might be attributed, in part, to an early lucky break. Unlike his brother, who wrote nothing, he was not given the name Gansevoort. He was called Herman instead.
Here’s an odd admission to make on a blog about books: I hate buying novels.
Although I’m no bibliophobe – I love books! – I have a fear of ‘what books may do,’ as Holbrook Jackson puts it. Not all books, mind, just new-release novels.
Let me explain.
Buying books is risky business. A new novel hardly ever lives up to the hype, which says more, methinks, about the way books are marketed than about the books themselves. And then what?
Reading a novel is no one-night stand. Unlike a mediocre movie, a bad book stays with you; it crouches on your shelf, glaring at you like the picture of Dorian Gray, with ‘eyes of a devil’, a reminder of your profligacy and poor judgement.
Here’s another admission: I hate selling my books, even the bad ones. My ‘typographical errors’, you see, must never be known.
It’s time I tidied the books on my bedside table: two are giving me nightmares.
They’re fine novels, I’m sure, it’s just that I can’t read them right through. Here’s why: Less has too little sex and Atomised too much.
Like all earnest readers, I’m haunted by the ghosts of books half-read.
I can’t finish Catch-22 because the story changes; Inside Mr Enderby because it stays the same, funny but futile.
The Hobbit hobbled me a few pages in.
Of Tug of Love I’ve read only the title, while just one chapter of Eleanor Oliphant was completely fine.
I conquered War and Peace but that other Russian behemoth, Life and Fate, has got me beat.
Clearly it’s time I exorcised my literary demons. If reading is a kind of rewriting then my versions of some books are simply shorter than the rest.
Less by Andrew Sean Greer
Atomised by Michel Houellebecq
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Inside Mr Enderby by Anthony Burgess
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Tug of Love by Penny Jordan
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman