The old placeholder version was a little too rough and ready, and this suits the bill much better. Is anything ever finished, or should we just move on?
All books are available at the bookshop.
The old placeholder version was a little too rough and ready, and this suits the bill much better. Is anything ever finished, or should we just move on?
All books are available at the bookshop.
Afloat on the ocean, the flotsam and the jetsam,
the shipwrecked of the drama-politique,
Ceci n’est pas un poème.
The Right State to Come
A Near or Future Tale
This is Anodynia: the state of least resistance.
We’re told the truth, the dream, the reset plan,
in segments we can swallow,
in factory unit phrases:
homogenised and harmonised.
We don’t use the capital letters
but we know that they are there.
Some of us write of Anodynia, though quietly:
After the Light Came
The resistance grew and blew
empathy into one another’s
shattered, screaming sensibilities:
individuals understood the light that came,
first as particles,
and then as waves
together, as polarities dissolved.
‘We’ was no longer a four-letter word.
In the future of the near and far,
we’ll dare to disagree,
but we’ll talk with one another, listen,
and we’ll agree to disagree.
Oh, the state of the state:
Joaquín Garcia, a civil servant of Cadiz, it was reported, ‘failed to turn up for work for at least six years’ having been ‘caught after becoming eligible for a long service award.’ Señor Garcia, who was worried at sixty-nine, was employed ‘to supervise the building of a waste water treatment plant’, claiming later that he had been ‘moved to a post where there was no work to do.’
‘The newspapers called me El Funcionario Fantasma: that is, the phantom official to you,’ Garcia said. It was noted that the boss of the water company had not seen Señor Garcia for ‘years despite occupying an office opposite his.’ The water company thought he was supervised by the local authorities and vice versa. The deputy mayor noticed his absence when Señor Garcia became eligible to receive a plaque for twenty years’ service. Señor Garcia, it transpired, did go to the office ‘although not for full business hours every day,’ dedicating himself to ‘reading philosophy.’
‘The truth of the matter,’ said Garcia, ‘was that El Funcionario Fantasma was employed in the construction of part of a whole city that was fake.’ Some way outside Cadiz, they built a ghost town. This new city would be, it was said, ‘when finished, a to-scale fabricated town, built to code, complete with schools, roads — basically everything you would consider the necessary components of a functional city. Except, of course, no residents.’ There would be ‘separate districts in which it will be possible to test distinct products: Energy District, Development District, Water District, Agricultural District, and a downtown area. And each will be connected by an underground nervous system of sensors, water, and sewer systems.’
‘The ghost town,’ said Garcia, ‘was going to be a giant petri dish for city planning.’
He scratched his head.
‘Well, I grew bored with little to do. When the water plant had been built, it needed overseeing. There is no waste water in a waste water plant for no people. My mind began to ponder what I heard others saying about other aspects of the city: there could be trash or vandalism manufactured for the sake of a specific test, but what about stuff that becomes less essential when you don’t have, you know, actual residents? Stuff like public art? A call for projects was announced and entries came in from across the country. Well, philosophy and art are not so far apart . . .’
Garcia conceived of a zoo as art piece: what could be more of a thought-piece as a zoo-full of animals for no-one to look on? He had time to spare and, he reasoned, a man unnoticed as missing from his desk for six years could easily expect to gather a zoo-full of creatures without being interrupted. Unfortunately, Garcia mused, there was a tremendous flood. ‘It was almost Biblical,’ he said. The cages released the animals amidst the downpour. ‘Lions roamed the streets, a hippopotamus grazed from a tree in a central square and a bear was left crouching on a first-floor window sill.’
Señor Garcia, not rendered completely fazed, though only shortly before becoming eligible for a long service award, devised a further philosophical-art piece.
‘I conceived of the Kingdom of Enclava,’ he announced. It was, he explained, ‘a thousand square foot patch of land’. It was billed as ‘the smallest country in Europe’, Garcia went on, suggesting that he had situated his new country strip of land within the city of no people. He smiled a little, weakly. ‘Enclava has no citizens as yet.’
Señor Joaquín Garcia, artist, philosopher, El Funcionario Fantasma, did not receive the long service award he was due. Instead, he was ordered to pay a year’s salary and was quietly retired. He can be found, telling stories for beers, in the little back street bars of Cadiz, some way out from a ghost town that no longer contains a zoo or a small country.
Note: this story is a montage of the extraordinary/ordinary reported text from real events with fictional original linking narrative, written for the Magic Realism Blog Hop 2016 (details below references).
BBC (2016), Spanish civil servant off work unnoticed for six years [Online]. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-35557725 (Accessed July 25, 2016).
Beauchamp, S. (2015), A giant, fake city in the middle of the desert. Washington DC: The Atlantic [Online]. Available from: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/05/a-giant-fake-city-in-the-middle-of-the-desert/391652/ (Accessed July 25, 2016).
Parfitt, T. (2015), Hippopotamus on loose in Tblisi shot with tranquilliser — but tigers, lions and wolves still free. London: Telegraph
Squires, N. (2015), Welcome to the world’s newest country — the kingdom of Enclava. London: Telegraph.
This post is part of the Magic Realism Blog Hop. About twenty blogs are taking part in the hop. Over three days (July 29-31, 2016) these blogs will be posting about magic realism. Click on the blue frog button below to get the links of all the blogs.
(i) [I] don’t like to write, but [I] like having written. (ii) I like having written a book, but I can’t say I enjoy the actual work. (iii) I enjoy having written. (iv) I loathe writing, but I love having written. (v) Most writers don’t like writing; they like having written.
— Frank Norris (i)
quoted in The Bellman (1915)
— Cornelia Otis Skinner (ii)
quoted in Lubbock Avalanche Journal (1964)
— Clive Barnes (iii)
quoted in Wall Street Journal (1968)
— Irene Kampen (iv)
quoted in Press Telegram (1976)
— Gloria Steinem (v)
as attributed, in Idaho State Journal (1976)
There is a disconnect between the marvellous reality, extraordinary of the ordinary, of the lives we lead and the dulling density, the prosaic paucity of the minutiae of what we see as ‘work’. In reality, there are possibilities of magical beauties in the cafés, in angled augmentations of sunlight slaking the surfaces of walls, in the lived lives of breathing trees seen in all the in-betweens. Look, says the Muse, with fingers at the nape of your neck. There is the sudden comprehension of truths.
We can sense a great onslaught of words. Every one makes sense, in its own way. Together, they have a gathered integrity, perplexity, connected wholeness. We can sit and consider all the words that might be integral to some space, some time, some space-in-time, or space-time: the whole is it. Some days, some times or situations, we live in atomic moments. Words take on quantum satisfaction: everything, like now, fits, somehow.
We can practice the art of instancy in the looking or the being seen. Even the nature of the urban — its fabric and its flesh — can sense us. We can be aware of moments and how they play us, and how they play through us, whispering. All the instances we ever may experience, if we practice seeing, are neutrino particles in their rush: all this flow of interwoven sensory snapshots of so much more than photographic sheen.
From the whisper edge of the succinct, where moments play at the periphery of perception, where descriptions hang in space, there is the faint and furious burn of the suddenly known: the precision selection of a strand of words presents itself — a perceptive sudden connection to the world. The marvellous reality may be seen in densely drenched consideration and delineation. If we practice the art of instancy, we can capture the air itself in words.
Yet, in paucity, conversely, what can we know if we’re sunk in the sea sands of what we see as ‘work’? Our lungs are filled with saltwater and, instead of breathing words, we hardly breathe at all. Words, tangible or ethereal-ephemeral, cannot be seen as ‘work’: worked and woven, yes, but never ‘work’.
Reference (for all article epigraph quotes):
Quote Investigator (2014), Don’t like to write, but like having written [Online]. Available from: www.quoteinvestigator.com/2014/10/18/on-writing (Accessed Mar 6, 2016).
‘Ideas change, they warp and become salty, they run, they are eclipsed, they go dark. Ideas compost, they drop seeds . . . Ideas are saturated, incubated, stained, and blurred . . . Most live in the substrata, lurking in the forest undergrowth, in the pavement of my city, in the folds of skin behind your knees.’
from Beginnings? (Nora Bateson, 2015)
Come back and around in the art of going around in circles. There are things we can learn about letting things ripen and in our re-twists and returns. Drop in an idea or two and let them brew. You know (I’ll assert) the page can be a fantastic arena for fermentation (and, here, ‘fantastic’ is with a view to the blown out, a starsplash, out of the ordinary): the spread of yeast, the Petri dish. Or, mixing metaphors, drop in a bead of ink and watch it unfold in the water. We write and we wait.
Do you know what you wrote, one day, stone cold sober or otherwise, and later underneath the ink there is, you find, something sweet unique? What does it matter if they might say that all that ever might be written ever has been written? It never has been written quite this way. Though you may not have known it at the time, later when you read again you sensed something just breathing. We write and we wait and we listen in.
It may just be the brewing process, words steeped in the mash of time and place where they were written, steeped in the puttering and bubbling of the states of being, times and places of our returns of reading. We write and we wait, we listen in and we stir.
Underneath the ink is something quite unique. We create our tenebrous soft and wet-winged creatures and leave them in the dark. What is it that they’re silked with? What ‘ineffable utter neatness’ and ‘everything just connects-ness’ smothers them? What lies folded within the nascent, soft wet wings of a line? It may just be its settling that imbues its future reading with an artistry. We write and we wait, we listen in and we stir; we study with the keenness of mothers.
Come back and around in the art of going around in circles. There are things we can learn about letting things ripen and in our re-twists and returns. Drop in an idea or two and let them brew. You know (I’ll assert) the page can be a fantastic arena for fermentation: the spread of yeast, the Petri dish, where the salty long-tongued lick of lips is soft and small — the grub, the pup that opens up its silk-slipped wings, letting leatherings and letterings stiffen in the breeze you breathe across them.
We write, we wait, we listen, and we stir; we study and we are astounded, confounded, by the creatures we have made.
Once, come close, someone pulled at their lip and caught you there: maybe. A long time later, in a different life, you sensed a flickering of this, in a different city, at a time that found you unawares. It stopped you for a while: the way that once-forgotten touch tends to do.
Once, she placed her hand on my chest, and her print is indelible now. This sliver-moment is sunk in me. Of course, at the time, she knew what it was she was doing, entirely, and there’s no such thing as moments that look like slivers.
I stop writing for a while because of words . . .
The world we’re all enmeshed in is felt and lived within such multitudes of planes: some may see the numbers of it all, some the colours, music or other sounds, some may see in dance, in segments of time or times, or some might see in words. All the velvet stories of our days enwrap us. All the felt and chiffon descriptors of our current surroundings enfold us. Once upon a time comes close, sometime when we’re immersed in other lives: it breathes hotly at our ear.
The matter of our lives and words combine. What richnesses we keep concealed in the pockets of our days and in the depths imprinted in our fingertips. The depth-textures of all we write (whether on the air, or on the page, or onto someone else’s skin) are pressed with all the very many days contained within our fingerprints.
Once, come close, someone kissed you. It never left your lips, though you didn’t know how this would happen at the time; though, now, you don’t always think of it. All the kisses you’ve ever tasted do this. Imagine the intensity if they all came back at once . . .
We’re fingerprint-deep and kissed-stained through and through.
Later, in a different city, in the vegetation density of a different life, fractions with the weight of butterflies and with the mass of moments flutter because of utterly unconnected things. Or maybe connections are more complex than we think: the temporal-rhizomatic mesh we live within.
Once, when she kissed me, softly, leaving traces of her on me all these years gone by, she left a thread to whatever of this ochre scene before me now spins back and back to her. I haven’t the capacity to understand the links, but I know that something does.
The texture content of our written matters is depth-enmeshed infused; the flesh and grain of all our days, the intimate maps of our lives, the lived experience in all its rhizomatic connectedness, is intrinsic to our lines. That with which we are concerned is matter.
Once, come closer, someone left a gap in your life.
A writer is working when he’s staring out the window.
— Burton Rascoe
I have been staring out of the window for a while.
With grace, have faith . . .
be quiet say nothing
except the street be full of stars
— Pablo Picasso
except the canals be full of evening
and our hands full of lamplight
the sky the colour of irises
— Adrian Henri (from Spring Poem)
Some books take in time, and One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of those books. Some four months in the reading, this four-hundred page plus novel also encompasses time within its pages. Popularly considered as one of Márquez’s most celebrated literary contributions, if not the most celebrated of his works, this book has been on this reader’s list for quite some while. It is, once within its pages, an immersive read; however, herein lies a fundamental issue with what Márquez has produced — in returning to the pages, we must find our way back in.
One Hundred Years of Solitude (Penguin Books, 1972, 2014, translated from the original Spanish by Gregory Rabassa; originally published as Cien Años de Soledad, 1967) details the various trials and tribulations of some six generations of the Buendía family. Following the arrival of a group of travelling pioneers — including José Arcadio Buendía and Úrsula Iguarán — in a remote area of Latin America, the founding of the village, and later city, of Macondo soon takes place. So begins the dynasty of the Buendías. It is, however, with the opening gambit of the predicament that will later be the lot of one of their sons, Aureliano, which Márquez chooses to entice us into the tale that will spread out in its pages. Aureliano, later to be known as Colonel Aureliano Buendía, faces the firing squad in the book’s opening lines. He remembers the day his father, José Arcadio, took him to discover ice.
Márquez proceeds to unfold the stories of various characters within the family in the form of interacting vignettes. There is a density to the whole, as illuminated by Alejo Carpentier’s 1975 lecture encompassing his descriptions of ‘the baroque and the marvellous real’, and Márquez confesses in the latter pages of his novel that there is a certain cyclical nature to time that he is portraying. That is to say, deep into the work, we begin to read recurring scenarios and situations between characters, and the by-then aged Úrsula is convinced that history is repeating itself. Márquez declares an interest in the idea that time plays itself out all at once.
Despite the developing appreciation of these concepts throughout the read, the density of it all is exacerbated by the deliberate repetition and re-use of the same character names across generations. It is appreciated, in context, why this is done, but there are, for example, twenty-two different Aurelianos (some merely sketched, such as seventeen of the sons of Colonel Aureliano Buendía, all by different women; some, such as the Colonel himself, are much more detailed in the author’s following of his life); there are four José Arcadios, and a further Arcadio, two Amarantas, and three characters named or partly named Remedios, as well as other characters who also step through the pages. Further to all of this, Márquez makes denser the weave by detailing twins and other brothers, and repetitions of relationships between male characters and their aunts. Such is the complexity of the family by way of its names, it’s a saving grace that the publishers have included a family tree on the opening pages. Without this the danger is that the reader returning to the book after a reading pause of some days might be tempted not to carry on: which José Arcadio or Aureliano is Márquez referring to here, and which aspect of whose vignette are we currently returning to?
What begins as a tale that appears to be one that will follow the life of a revolutionary, who faces and will escape the firing squad — albeit first from the earlier perspective of the Colonel’s childhood — becomes an exposition of digressions into tales of others. Certainly there are tales of fantastic beauty and those which linger in the memory afterwards within all of this: Márquez recounts the manner of Remedios the Beauty’s ascension to heaven; the way in which yellow butterflies flit around Mauricio Babilonia, father of the penultimate Aureliano, wherever he goes; the brief description of the yellow flowers falling after the death of José Arcadio, father of the Colonel. However, we are sometimes left wondering about the tale in progression if we leave it for a reading pause, even at a natural break in the writing. How is it that Márquez has kept track of the abundance of detail, as Carpentier has it, in these vignettes? The author returns, pages later, to a seemingly forgotten aspect of a tale once told, and the reader has either forgotten this and is reminded of it, or the reader has no recollection at all of the aspect he’s being reminded of. Such is the danger of lengthy reading of One Hundred Years of Solitude.
To the characters who live in its pages, Márquez also adds the evocation of the ghosts of characters who have died and who linger in the memories of the occupants of the house that serves as the central grounding piece of the dynasty. José Arcadio, the original and forefather, is visited by the ghost of a man he killed and who contributed to his desire to travel, in search of the sea, later founding Macondo. In turn, he, José Arcadio, after spending his final days tied to a chestnut tree in the failing of his faculties, is referred to as inhabiting the life of a ghost there, before quietly slipping from the pages as the years also slip by. Melquíades, a gypsy from the early days of Macondo, appears in slight apparitional fashion to subsequent characters from future generations in a room in the house which collects no dust, and in which those future Buendías struggle to translate Melquíades’ parchments, written, as it later transpires, in his native Sanskrit. Those parchments form a thread throughout the novel, a prophesy of the family, but Márquez ensures there are many, many threads to follow.
Time passes within the various travails of members of the Buendía family, whose matriarch, Úrsula, mother of Colonel Aureliano, is a familiar if steadily ageing presence. Children are born, grow, and are abandoned by Márquez in decaying houses till old-age or packed off to the nunnery, forgotten by the reader until the author deems to have them resurface, if they will; or else they leave the house and Macondo, often returning from their travels across seas, from adventures in search of mysteries and myths, only to reach disturbing ends after Márquez has built them up so much in his overlapping vignettes. Such is death in reality, but nevertheless the suddenness of Márquez’s treatment of characters we’ve grown accustomed to over hundreds of pages is affecting. Even Úrsula, at the age of 122 before she lost count, has a death barely given half a paragraph, close to the four-hundred page mark. The Colonel’s eventual demise is likewise briefly attended to, as is his father’s, José Arcadio, who we follow through the fledgling pages of this novel in his ever-enthusiastically imagined schemes and inventions. Márquez writes time quickly, in some senses, despite the expanse of it in the whole of this work, and chooses not to dither too long in dialogue.
Characters are imbued with solitude throughout: such seems to be at the heart of Melquíades the gypsy’s prophesy. Even the house, which sees within its walls the hospitality of Úrsula, the revolutionary comings and goings of Colonel Aureliano’s various campaigns, in his returns, the unrequited and illicit loves and fervent vengeful preoccupations of Amaranta, Rebeca, Amaranta Úrsula, Remedios the Beauty, Aureliano Segundo and Fernanda, et al, seems to wear an air of solitude in itself. The house’s fortunes wax and wane, from the abundant times of Aureliano Segundo to the slow and suffocating stiffness of formality that his wife, Fernanda, later imposes on it, as Úrsula turns blind with age. Fernanda’s darkness consumes pages. Eventually, the house is swamped by four years of constant rain, but nevertheless Fernanda insists on persisting with the staunch formality of her own upbringing. The period of rain is bleak, and Márquez draws it with such skill that we want it to end as much as the characters do. At this time, at the height of bleakness, Márquez brings back Fernanda’s son, another José Arcadio, after her death, who she had sent to Rome to learn to become a Pope. He is as stiff as his mother, but there have been no papal studies. There is brief light though, following José Arcadio’s untimely demise, with the return of the penultimate Aureliano’s young aunt, Amaranta Úrsula, Macondo being a stronger pull than her study and husband in Brussels.
Time happens both quickly and slowly within Márquez’s novel. We forget about certain characters, such as Pilar Ternera, a madame, a prostitute, mother of an earlier Aureliano and an Arcadio, whose fathers are brothers: Márquez brings her back later in the work, at the age of 145 at the last count, fantastic though this is, then he lays her to rest in a vault beneath her final brothel. Rebeca, from the earlier days, slowly decays in a house we see nothing much of, and we forget that she’s there until Márquez tells us that now she’s finally died. We met her when she was young, dragging the bones of her parents in a sack. So much has happened between then and the final pages.
Such is a useful summary of One Hundred Years of Solitude: Márquez packs in so many details, so many vignettes, and so many characters that we struggle to remember it all. Maybe the same is true of generations. Maybe, as Márquez writes, we may see time as cyclical, repeating, or all at once because the ‘marvellous real’ of it all, as Carpentier has it, is that the extraordinary is the ordinary, and vice versa. Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is certainly a read that is immersive, if not a little frustrating with its dizziness of repeated character names, and this reader recommends an immersion of something more like four days rather than four months: time is an essential component of this book.
As the end of the reading and writing year is upon us, I have been considering the content of my various reviews over the past twelve months. What follows is an admittedly lengthy piece but one which, I trust, can be returned to or read in sections: it is a piece that can be analysed in itself, certainly. The collection of sixteen titles reviewed in 2014 forms just a proportion of total reading content in the past year; however, the reviews that have been inspired by these books do offer the opportunity for this writer to further engage with the process of writing. To be better writers we must continue to read, to analyse, and to learn.
What follows is a review of the reviews of those sixteen titles. The salient aspects of each review have been republished in this post, re-worded for greater clarity in some cases, and roughly categorised (anonymising here, for the most part, regarding comment references to particular authors). The intention is that each comment can stand alone as a point of reflection for writers in consideration of their own work.
This review of reviews has been a process of reading, analysis and synthesis in itself. It embraces various short story collections, novels, novellas, and a form of travel-journal. Twelve authors’ works are included, namely: Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Diego Marani, Javier Marías, Gabriel García Márquez, Christopher Burns, Tove Jansson, Esther Freud, Jack Kerouac, Haruki Murakami, Cees Nooteboom, Ben Okri, and Bruce Chatwin. The original reviews can be found via the left-hand side bar.
The review points to follow offer this writer some food for thought. I trust that they can do likewise for you too.
• The author tries to deliver as much hook in the first paragraphs of his stories as he can.
• There is an interesting opening idea and we settle down to the potential unwinding of this mystery.
• However, the author’s story is soon cluttered with irritating pretensions of cleverness and, half-way through, a disorientating shift in scene altogether.
• The ever-increasing reading hope that the author’s opening line will, at some point, amount to something fails to materialise.
• Something may be happening. A reader must care.
• A story not entirely believable might be forgiven (a reader might go with the flow).
• The author exercises skill at immersing the reader in his places, characters’ situations, and in moments in time.
• He has the ability to sink the reader down into the fabric of the book, the place and person in the print.
• Moments of magic realism left unnurtured cause some reading dissatisfaction.
• What we are left with is something that lingers, certainly.
• Of a collection engaging with semi-autobiographical material: we can suspend our imaginations for a certain period and indulge in the idea that pure fictions are present, but at the back of the reading mind is the knowledge of something different taking shape.
• The effect of the story must strike true enough.
• Obscure literary references: some are more easily comprehensible than others.
• Also avoid the relentless and frankly irritating insistence of including foreign language as the primary source of much dialogue, followed by English translations or vice versa (as if to say, grandiosely, ‘look I speak French/am French and how superior I must be’).
• The gracelessness of the exploration is a growing agitation in the read.
• The author’s meandering, sometimes unfathomable writing style jars repeatedly.
• It is the rambling, unintelligible, non-contextual aspect of the author’s writing that is the most bafflingly frustrating.
• Having reached the half-way stage of the book, still so far so possible. However, here the author throws the reader completely. Now, at the start of the second half of the book, we find that the main character is somewhere and somewhen else. It isn’t at all clear what is going on.
• A reader doesn’t often like to be taken from one story and placed in what appears to be the middle of another without forewarning.
• The main character narrates several excruciating pages of pretentious classical-mythological analogy.
• This book is a lengthy poetic indulgence for the author, which might well have been delivered better in more succinct and shining ways.
• Whilst it remains fine to meander, some of the tellings of tales appear, to this reader, questionable in authenticity.
• The author meets and references a great many people in his exploration, with noble attempts at drawing certain individuals with brushstrokes designed at impressing them into the memory, but the net effect is that of a general swathe and flow of a traveller’s acquaintances.
• The author offers up pages of excerpts from his previous notebook travels, some of which provide succinct pause for thought, but the overall effect rather spoils the narrative drive of the whole.
• Fictive suspension must be maintained.
• In a semi-autobiographical collection, writing as another gender disturbs the fictive flow: a certain degree of interest is lost because, in the context of the collection as a whole, this just does not fit; the nagging returns as to who is narrating here.
Brilliance and beauty
• Expertly describes bleaknesses and deftly describes raw power and beauty.
• Describes small slices of scenes with colour and delicate words.
• He has the succinct ability to pinpoint a description with a minute but significant object detail.
• The author does offer up moments of linguistic flourish.
• As delicate and as beautiful as an object found on a beach.
• A string of beautiful arrangements.
• In places, sprinkled with beautiful description.
• The author weaves in some beautiful imagery and sensory assemblages of market places.
• There are some small successes in playing with language.
• The author is capable of dropping in a fine and succinct line of thought.
• There are moments of quoted poetic beauty.
• Avoid jamming into a narrative apparent knowledge of the nuances of a subject matter in clumsy ways.
• The writerly device of a character narrating to the author a personal shared back-story tale (memories of place, times, objects) can feel somewhat clumsy.
• Do not set up titles for books by way of contrived conversations between characters.
• There is a proliferation of clumsy similes.
Identity of a book
• Pay attention to the potential for a crisis of identity (what is this book trying to be?)
• One story is confused in its descriptions, place, time, and reason for being.
• What is it that is the heart (not at the heart) of this book?
• The author does not seem to know what this book is: is it some discourse on metaphysical angst, an exploration of meta-fiction, detective-mystery magical allusion, or any or none of the above?
Body of work
• The practice of ‘writing on writing’ (as in building on the body of work), can be a useful device for development of the art form, but the body of work must have an integrity regarding its development (every writer’s quality of output will shift over time).
• A story might be ‘re-purposed’, by altering the title, character names and setting of a previous story.
• A story collection can form from ideas for a novel.
• ‘I had found what I needed to complete the book, what only the passing of years could give: a perspective in time’ — Márquez (the whole process took some eighteen years).
• Characters may be linked across the author’s body of work (there being a penchant for returning characters, as would seem to be the case).
• Names are used in dialogue to introduce characters, or to try to indicate who says what next. This feels somewhat amateurish.
• If we’re to immerse in the voices of characters presented to us, we need to be able to differentiate between those characters.
• Characters, Latin Americans in Europe, spring quickly from the page.
• The author has a penchant for the full name (immediately giving us some sense of a person; some feel for the possibility of a history).
• There are believable patterns of lives, though in sometimes slightly fabulous ways.
• The author seems to enjoy the ‘folding in’ of characters in his stories: a promising opening; offering us place and character and a rough idea of where those characters are heading in the piece; he folds in some extra details to give further colour to the whole, before often folding in further still by delivering some back story details to the personal histories of those characters.
• There is slight irritation in the author’s choices of flat, almost prosaic, character names: Simon, Peter, Mary, Andrew, Neville, Tony, et al (should we place our characters so blatantly in their landscapes by such choices, or can we afford to exercise more in the way of flourish and embellishment in this respect?)
• We bow down to the nature knowledge of one of the characters and suppose that it is true.
• None of the wisdom portrayed is dispatched in a holier-than-thou or preached manner.
• Can a character be seen as ‘a real child’? That is, it can be easy to slip into the trap of writing a child character in stereotypical sugary-sweet form; or, would an average child want to use words such as ‘aristocratic’ in speech?
• It is perplexing that a character referred to as existing on an island does not become in any way concrete for the majority of a book, and does not speak until three pages from the end. That he’s subtly eased off the frame of the page is a little off-putting.
• There are gradual interactions between characters.
• There is a concern though: little love can be shown to either of the main characters by the reader.
• A third character is the pivot, and the author has successfully sketched him in the neutrality that is required in order for the other characters to be as shaded as they are.
• Katri Kling, in her hardness, and Anna Aemelin, in her softness, have perfect names for their characters.
• In short story collections, surround a character by other stories that don’t make him/her jump out sharply from the whole.
• She exhibits a deep understanding of what it is to be child age.
• The author carefully and gradually draws a picture of the main character.
• Such is the author’s skill at writing from the younger child’s perspective (not in saccharine sweet stereotyped ways) that she manages to convince us of the magic of place at the same time as slowly unfolding the frustrating mother character.
• However, more psychological damage should have been caused to one of the child characters as a result of the mother character’s actions.
• Avoid extremely sketched and ridiculous stereotypes.
• The main character presents as a pretentious scholarly bore. Perhaps this is more accurately descriptive of the author himself though: the character and the author seem to share some aspects of their existence.
• The author surrounds the main character with a series of flimsily sketched other characters who mope about and stare off into the evening sky. Those characters are reminiscent, perhaps, of beginner writers’ early attempts at creating believable people: stereotypical, paper-thin, verging on archetypal.
• The author mostly eschews the naming of places and people (on one level, this works in the context of the formation of myth-making; on another level, as a novel-story, this is wholly unsatisfactory).
• Even more curious is that the author then deems it necessary to stamp a nickname onto one of the characters who washes in and out of the tale, and he names another who doesn’t stay long enough on the pages for character examination.
• This book includes a series of characters who are as airy or as liquid as the words the author lays down.
• The main characters mope through the pages of the book and nothing really happens for long, long periods.
• A flow of alternating dialogue — a collection of people and their overlapping conversations — although not difficult to follow, is clumsy in its execution.
• Dialogue here, in its relative scarcity, is unconvincingly poetically delivered: sometimes with torturous lack of reality, sometimes with torturous rhyme.
• Beware of writing that feels like after-thoughts, as a means of sewing up bits the author has neither the wit nor the inclination to think through as he goes.
• The author writes in a seemingly self-conscious manner at times, trying to fill in the holes he’s left, looking to smooth it all over and say to the reader how that’s all been cleared up, let’s move on.
• Avoid late and turgid long myth-tales as meandering excursions.
• The author’s long expositions build without any great pace or urgency to a point of frustration.
Twists and deviations
• Significant twists in some stories only serve to disturb the reader: the slightest of fictive cheating has taken place.
• That we gradually work out a time and place in any given story should work as a reward for our reading and connecting the puzzle pieces: when we’re shifted from that path, rudely as it were, when we’re walking comfortably along in the story’s authority, it risks unsettling us.
• Meta-fiction can be a dangerous game to play.
• When an author rides a vehicle such as ‘language’, a reader will inevitably find his thoughts turning to thoughts on language.
• The problem with the meta-fiction approach is at least two-fold: the reader becomes acutely aware of the writer’s thinking on writing, somewhat drawing the author as character into the piece, and the author needs to ensure everything he writes thereafter is faultless.
• There is consistently something lying beneath the surface in the author’s stories.
• The author’s writing appears to develop from conceptual inception, but the full depth of that thinking on the author’s part doesn’t always shine through.
• There are stories in this collection that aren’t so subtle or are laden and convoluted and which don’t reach the depths to which they might aspire. One, for example, is a messy stream of consciousness affair with no real focus; another is very slight and without great depth; another is a long and somewhat turgid exposition alluding to age.
• This is a tale that attempts to press some deeper concerns into the short- and long-term conscious process of the reader, but which falls short of this presumed target because of the shortcomings of its details.
• The story flows well enough, initially, but ultimately vagueness does not always result in depth.
• A poetic assemblage of no great solidity.
• It is a liquid flow of words which purports to meditative depths but, in reality, delivers a silted stodge to wade through.
• The idea is greater than the depth in its pages.
• There is undoubted complexity, as well as the poetic, and there is an accumulation of detail.
• Readability is let down by the author’s penchant for the occasional long and convoluted sentence.
• Consider syntax word orders of sentences and grammatical structures.
• Straighten out the incomplete sentences that tend to crop up.
• Avoid dense, impenetrable text.
• Markers are placed early on in stories and economically returned to later.
• There are recurring motifs.
• There is, however, a proliferation of partly constructed sentences throughout the book, which does have a tendency to distract the discerning eye.
• The author has presented, in short, a garbled concoction.
• ‘The end justifies the means’ is not a pretty means by any stretch.
• Stereotypical perceptions are to be avoided.
• This work is a fair percentage full of seemingly drunkard-penned ramblings in need of a good editorial savaging.
• It becomes apparent that the author either has a short attention span for maintaining motifs or anchor references in his story telling, choosing to introduce them and then just ignore them, or he has an inability to keep them in check.
• English translations may not accurately represent the nuances of the original language, but this work is peppered with incomplete sentences (the proliferation soon becomes cumbersome and annoying).
• He starts to warm to a new idea (or, if it’s been there all along, it’s been difficult to tell).
• There are clues on the opening page, but those clues are washed over in the reading because they come too soon.
• There is ambition of presenting a long mythic poetic prose tale which is not wholly achieved.
• At times the author’s writing feels like an exercise in poetic thesaurus development: he spins out his idea of the moment in tautological litanies.
• Do not replicate the author’s repetitive listed descriptions, for line upon line.
• Not for everyone: there is no definite plot, no narrative sweep of direction, no main crucible or conflict for the characters to navigate.
• The author’s story is a journey, though one without defined plot. This doesn’t matter because what we’re presented with is a tale of subtle love and frustration, abandonments, confusions, immersions and beauty.
• He spends time on his words.
• There is a predilection for certain favourite words or motifs.
• Precise, cut-glass, clear, clean prose. Hardly anything is wasted in the arrangements of words.
• For the most part, this collection is subtle, well-written, with the feel of care in construction, thought, considerations of structure and texture.
• There are some slender and beautiful juxtapositions in place.
• Juxtapositioning the prosaic and the beautiful can result in unexpected art.
• Sometimes it feels as if the author is crafting a piece, out and out, from a single kernel of an idea or from the delicate arrangement of one notion touched against another.
• There are some very deliberate structural arrangements/filmic qualities, in places.
• A book of love, a sculpting of character, enmeshing of characters.
• A book filled with clean, efficient, beautiful language.
• Despite its lack of plot or narrative direction, this book is built on love — a love of nature, for the island itself, for beauty, for characters.
• The author creates, perhaps with full intention, the overwhelming feel of something cold, winterstruck, and crisp yet troubling.
• There are layers that the author has, undoubtedly, deliberately stitched into this book.
• The ‘sketching’ process is one of the author’s signatures. She uses an economy of words which, for the most part, works well (we are left to think).
• The author’s contribution to the written form encompasses the crisp, the clean, the sharp, and the beautiful.
• One character’s long hoped-for return is a ghost that hangs in the pages throughout.
• Certainly there are ideas here that are worth creative investment of writing and reading, but the author rather spoils their shine with words for the sake of words.
Place and time
• The author’s travels have given him an eye for description of place and how that might feel for his characters.
• The author’s achievement here is to place this book in its own time, imbuing it with its own sense of memory.
• This is a book containing deliberate vast vistas and the occasionally succinct description of place.
Magic and myth
• The author deals with magic in such a way as to alchemise it into plastic.
• The author’s ideas might well be worth magic consideration, but his way of writing on them just brings the reader to the point of drifting off because of a lack of belief.
• A story needs anchoring in belief, even — or especially — if it’s the telling of the origins of myth.
• Avoid clumsy and unsatisfactory endings.
• On occasion, the author ends a story abruptly and seemingly on the cusp of an idea.
• Take care not to let a story peter out: the potential force of the tale fades.
• This collection ends with effective poignancy.
Whilst Chatwin’s The Songlines (Vintage, 2003; Jonathan Cape Ltd, 1987) is not a story collection as it were, or a novel, it is a collection of tales of travel and study, and so review here seems fitting. Within the narrative drive that is Chatwin’s journeying of the sacred lands around Alice Springs, Australia, with Arkady Volchok — an Australian citizen of Russian descent — there is an exploration of Aboriginal culture, academic study and conjecture, myth and magic. Despite the notion, as quoted of a character known as Titus towards the end of the book, that ‘there is no such person as an Aboriginal or Aborigine. There are Tjakamarras and Jaburullas and Duburungas like me, and so on all over the country’, Chatwin expends much time and energy in the pursuit of what it is to be an ‘Aboriginal’ native of the land.
What results is a book containing deliberate vast vistas and the occasionally succinct description of place: ‘We forked right at the sign for Middle Bore and headed east along a dusty road that ran parallel to a rocky escarpment. The road rose and fell through a thicket of grey-leaved bushes, and there were pale hawks perching on the fence-posts.’ Chatwin’s direction is exploration of the Aboriginal Songlines (the land is literally sung into being), but his journey meanders. However, whilst it remains fine to meander so, some of the tellings appear, to this reader, questionable in authenticity.
Chatwin meets and references a great many people in his exploration, and although he makes noble attempts at drawing certain individuals with brushstrokes designed at impressing them into the memory (such as with the manner of their demeanour or the idiosyncrasy of their attire), the net effect is that of a general swathe and flow of a traveller’s acquaintances. Chatwin accompanies Arkady for a significant portion of the book, the latter’s role being ‘to identify the traditional landowners . . . and get them to reveal which rock or soak or ghost-gum was the work of a Dreamtime hero.’ Arkady is trusted of the Aboriginal ‘mobs’, working to map the land’s Songlines so that the new railway can’t be driven straight through it all.
Chatwin offers an eloquent account of what these Songlines are, as the exploration deepens, and as a thread to follow throughout the pages. He writes, at various stages, for example:
‘One should perhaps visualise the Songlines as a spaghetti of Iliads and Odysseys, writhing this way and that, in which every episode was readable in terms of geology.’
‘Regardless of the words, it seems the melodic contour of the song describes the nature of the land over which the song passes . . . Certain phrases, certain combinations of musical notes, are thought to describe the actions of the Ancestor’s feet.’
‘By naming all the things in his territory, [the Aboriginal] could always count on survival.’
‘In Aboriginal belief, an unsung land is a dead land: since, if the songs are forgotten, the land itself will die.’
Chatwin’s travels to see various important local figures and their ‘managers’, tagging along with Arkady (acting as the hook on which the author can pin his studies), results in a plethora of stories about the land in which they drive. The characters he meets seem mostly reticent but Chatwin is able to relay their songline stories of the Lizard Man, the Tjilpa (native cat), and the like. As with all stories we must sink into them: there is a certain suspension of our learned understandings of the ways of the world to be entered into. Chatwin draws the tales well enough though, insofar as leaving us believing that a man who has never seen the land — which he reels off his learned ‘song’ about — can tell exactly where he is by navigation of the told nodal points of geology and the other nuances of that song.
Chatwin has a notion throughout The Songlines that he never deviates from — it is evident that he has already made up his mind about the assumed preferred state of the human species and now, in the writing, he returns again and again to justifying this idea: we are, he writes, nomadic creatures by nature. Chatwin offers up pages of excerpts from his previous notebook travels, some of which provide succinct pause for thought, but the overall effect rather spoils the narrative drive of the whole.
There are excursions into previous meetings with academics and writers, unearthing thought-provoking oddities such as via Chatwin’s conversations with Konrad Lorenz (the ‘Father of Ethology’), near Vienna, in which it is claimed that ‘war [is] the collective outpouring of [Man’s] frustrated fighting drives’; there are Chatwin’s tales of his love for notebooks (‘To lose a passport was the least of one’s worries: to lose a notebook was a catastrophe’), specifically moleskine notebooks, and how the Parisian supplier could no longer furnish him with them because the manufacturer had died; there are moments of quoted poetic beauty (‘The most sublime labour of poetry is to give sense and passion to insensate things’ — Giambattista Vico).
Arkady departs from the pages for a substantial stretch of time, on business, leaving Chatwin holed up in the town of Cullen, collecting his thoughts and arranging his notebooks. It is Arkady’s departure to prompt such meanderings, and despite instances as above, Chatwin must fill the pages with something, but the reader feels obliged to skip-read through plenty of these other offerings in order to return to the flow of the main exploration. When we do so, there is the feeling that some of the interactions and ‘plot lines’ may not be altogether authentic. That is to say, there are moments where Chatwin’s text seems all too contrived. Marian, a research accomplice, for example, who transpires to be Arkady’s love interest, and the latter are depicted in one scene, thus:
I heard the noise of the plane coming in to land. I ran across the airstrip and was in time to watch Arkady get out . . .The golden mop of Marian’s hair followed. She looked deliriously happy. She was in another flowered cotton dress, no less ragged than the others.
‘Hey!’ I shouted. ‘This is wonderful.’
‘Hello, old mate!’ Arkady smiled . . . [he] drew us both into one of his Russian hugs.
‘Let me introduce you to the memsahib?’
‘That is a piece of news!’
‘Isn’t it?’ [Marian] giggled.
It is all a touch too Hollywood at the farthest extremity of the book. These minor misgivings aside, Chatwin’s main exploration of the Songlines offers the reader an insight, via the power of the tradition of oral stories, into ways of being and believing, other than our own. Citing Ted Strehlow, author of Songs of Central Australia, Chatwin writes that he, Strehlow, ‘once compared the study of Aboriginal myths to entering a ‘labyrinth of countless corridors and passages’, all of which were mysteriously connected in ways of baffling complexity.’
Chatwin adds that ‘what makes Aboriginal song so hard to appreciate is the endless accumulation of detail . . . structures of kinship reach out to all living men, to all his fellow creatures, and to the rivers, the rocks and the trees.’ Within The Songlines there is undoubted complexity, as well as the poetic, and there is that accumulation of detail. Chatwin’s legacy is, ultimately, to open up a beginning to our otherness of understanding.