The Reading Vows

There are times when reading is absolutely necessary. There are times, here, when there is a great need just to read. It comes in cycles, I find: it tracks me for a while, behind me like a shadow; I don’t know it’s there. Then, quietly, it insists itself on the days of my life. In days like these I have every need to read widely. What can cause this? Do I not have enough words of my own to sift and assemble? It’s not this. I don’t know what it is. It’s a desire that can’t be pinned. It passes, though I also don’t know why this is; it passes, but when it’s here it’s like a thirst.

Yet there is just so much matter out there in the ‘worlds’ we live in (paper worlds and digital virtual places). It can be overwhelming trying to locate the matter that needs the reading. I don’t know what I’m looking for, exactly, when I do look. I do know that when I find something that suggests it has a certain flavour to it, I must read it. I also know, however, that there is just so much wading to be done. Quadrillions of words in trillions of aggregations, perhaps, conspire to show repeated weaknesses. There is slurry, and maybe we’ve all contributed a little to this, alas.

There are gems amongst this though. Perhaps the knowledge that these do exist, must exist, maintains the will for the hunt. ‘Writing is a safari . . . it means going out there and spotting, nabbing and bringing home to the cage of the page the most marvellous living stuff of the world.’ Who was it who wrote this (which I left unattributed in my Germany-period notebook)? It doesn’t matter here for now. If writing is a safari, so too is the preparation for reading.

Finding is one thing, but giving oneself over to the find is quite another. I take a book by the hand and I know, before I open its cover, that I am about to commit to it. To have and to hold, to love and to finish . . . When I hold a paper book I can sense it: I can see and feel its weight and the potential time within it. I will read its covers and its author’s notes, its preface or its preamble: I will go straight to the last page — not to find out anything ahead of time, cheating — but to commit the page number to memory. I take extra care not to see the words there. This carving of the last number in me is not a way of trying to weigh myself down; rather, it’s a vow in the making (till death do us part, which I see to be page 210 . . .)

Taking an e-book by the hand is not so easy. It hides its secrets well and I sometimes find the e-book difficult. Let me see your pages whole, I think when I try to find it within the ink that isn’t ink at all, within the thin depths of the small plastic slab in my palm. I don’t care for the number limits of the chapters; I want to feel the weight of this whole book in time. Yet, even here, there are gems to be found: this I know; this I think.

This phase of the present need to read isn’t over yet. I still haven’t found, this time, what I’m looking for — exactly; though I have found moments in some stories, stories in themselves that linger, possible books to re-read, possible authors to try from new. There is slurry, and there are gems, and there is commitment called for.
 
 

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Of Precision and Depth Associations

I am irritated by my own writing. I am like a violinist whose ear is true but whose fingers refuse to reproduce precisely the sound he hears within.

Gustave Flaubert

In love, as in gluttony, pleasure is a matter of the utmost precision.

Italo Calvino
 
 
What is it that this is? That is, of words, these constructions that we like to contrive: what is it that this here is? I have been looking, this day; I am looking for depth association. Each word we lay down should have clarity, could be significant, must be crisp. It is this; or rather, this is what it is at this moment.

This isn’t just about a quality of content in the writing. We may read others’ words and find them stimulating, though sometimes — admittedly — we can also find them repulsive and all degrees between. There’s more within. In some ways, that which is sought is ineffable, or untouchable: it can’t reach the sense world. I’ve written about the feel of words before (this is the closest I can describe it); there are other layers though. This depth association is how I render it this day.

Try to write with clarity, so here it is: the smallest elemental seeds of lines are built into the shortest of stories, which in turn are part of a greater whole, which link into other stories in other segments of the wider collection, and all is connected across time, characters, places, memories, literary references or themes. It is this depth association I am, currently, trying to see in words I read and write. How does what you write connect with your other offerings? How can what I write connect across the sphere of my output? There must be honest attempts at precision.

There must be motifs and geographies, objects and actions, and other nuances, that link across time and page or screen. There must be the slightest repetition or just the insinuation of reference: it must be like light; or, there must be flavours steeped in; or, it is — as I’ve long suspected — the gap between the church bells that resonates with the most clarity. Words can be sharp and delicate, both, but such that after-tastes linger; after-images can press against the redness of the closed eyes; all of these: metaphors can marinate in the whole.

Be clear and precise: what is it that this is? This is a need for precision in the writing and in the reading; rhythm and grace; that which could melt. These are the ideals that gather, though these are the ideals that frustrate. The writer of pulp will earn his sluice of gravy money, sink it and think nothing more, no doubt; the writer who strives for the violinist’s chords may just be sunk by his own endeavours. In the end, perhaps the art of precision is an act of love: there may be depth associations and crispnesses but only those of similar malady might see.
 
 

The Pressing of the Social Fabric on the Written Word

Despite ourselves and any great imagination we might purport to have, can we only ever really write within the parameters of our own time? That is, we may write outside of own century (backwards or forwards), or even our own decade, or closer still, yet are we always bound by the present of our own realities seeping into what we’ve written? Is there no escape?

I’ve recently been reading some 12th century romances, as you do: the type that comes ready installed on e-readers. I’ve waded through Erec et Enide (‘waded’ being the operative term) by Chrétien de Troyes, and am stealing myself for single sitting attempts at Cligès, Yvain and Lancelot, by the same author. I prepared myself, as it were, with the reading of Tristan and Iseult, albeit an early 20th century interpretation written by Joseph Bédier.

The story of the story, the legend, the tale written on top of the tale, all interests me and has done for some time. That we’re comprised of stories is something I come back to time and again. I’ve written my own modern-day take on Tristan and Iseult (Isolde) and so felt compelled to go back again to see how my version builds out from others’ takes. After due settling periods of written pieces, these comparisons are interesting exercises in themselves.

What struck me in the reading of both of the above authors’ works was how much a product of their (assumed) time they were. That is, Chrétien de Troyes attempts to deliver an idealised 12th century society, grafting on his Arthurian ideal; Bédier’s 1900 Tristan and Iseult resupposes the romance for his period. If Arthur even existed at all he may well have been some 6th century Romano-British chieftain; his ‘Round Table’ is actually a late 13th century or early 14th century artefact, created on the instigation of Edward I, later appropriated by Henry VIII who depicted himself on it as Arthur. In short, the Arthurian ideal was just that.

From such stirring stuff of legend comes tales that keep getting re-told. However, in both eras read of recently, the ideal is less than so when seen in our modern terms: women, for example, largely come across as merely objects with little or no desire other than to serve the ‘noble’ lords, knights and fathers or father figures. The idealised French chivalry depicted by Chrétien de Troyes leads this reader to actively want his Enide to show a spark, any spark, of life. This only happens when, forced to marry the Count of Limors after thinking Erec dead, she verbally attacks him. That she gets slapped for her efforts is fitting for how I feel about her, but doesn’t do the perspective on womankind any good at all. I very much needed Enide to punch the Count back (and wage some retributory action on many of the male characters too); sadly though, these are just not in keeping with the social mores of the time.

Herein lies the rub: despite Enide’s role in the middle section of the story as someone who warns Erec of dangers he hasn’t yet seen, albeit meekly, and against Erec’s explicit demands, and despite the author’s apparent message that women should, in fact, speak up, Chrétien de Troyes can only really write whilst pressed upon by the social layers of his own time. Women are loyal trophies; all noble men’s deeds are most excellent (even when slaying and butchering); defeated opponents become subservient unquestioning ‘servant friends’: the servitude of women should be matched by their pleasing physical attributes; the butchery of men should be seen as noble; the righteous defeat of opponents should result in effectively enslaving them under the guise of ‘friendship’.

It is an idealism based, perhaps, as a reaction to the immediate times. Scroll forwards to the 20th and 21st centuries. As an example of such rootedness, I think back to the first of the Star Trek franchise: Kirk et al regularly tackled matters pertaining to the social issues of the 1960s, yet those storylines were projected onto a 23rd century future.

Is it possible to write, be it for television or film scripts or for books and the like, outside of our own time? That is, the social mores of our own place in time press on us and, no matter how subtly, influence us: we may be blessed with great imaginations, but can we use those to leap out of everything that surrounds us in the now?