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John Cheever’s ‘Falconer’

October 15, 2010 by  

Read ‘Falconer’ by John Cheever, the great writer who died in 1982. Read his ‘Journals’ two years ago, though have yet to transcribe my notes. Falconer is the name of the prison where Farragut, a war veteran and drug addict, is incarcerated for murdering his brother. The descriptions of the American jail are very real – moving and funny, and include incidents of the opportunistic homosexuality. A variety of characters summarise their life stories. One of the longest serving prisoners, a man nicknamed ‘Chicken’, when he complains, is reminded by a prison warder, ‘In twelve years nobody come to see you. That proves that there ain’t nobody on the street who knows your name. Even your own mother don’t know who you are. Sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, friends, chicks – you ain’t got nothing to sit down at a table with. You is worse than dead. You shit. The dead don’t shit.’

A philanthropist pays for the prisoners to have a photograph taken (in October) beside a plastic Christmas tree which they can send to their families. Chicken sends his to, Mr and Mrs Santa Claus. Icicle Street. The North Pole. ‘The photographer smiled broadly and was looking around the room to share this joke with the rest of them when he suddenly grasped the solemnity of Chicken’s loneliness.

Later, when Chicken dies we learn that he had strangled an old woman for eighty-two dollars.

Farragut is besieged my memory: ‘He was always left irritable at the fact that his memory could, quite independently of anything he knew about himself, manipulate its resources in controlled and repeated designs. His memory enjoyed free will, and his irritability was increased by his realization that his memory was as unruly as his genitals.

There are two unrealistic escapes described in the book – but whom am I to complain given the allegorical ending of my own ‘gay’ novel, ‘On The Back Of The Swallow’!


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Bath & Somerset

October 12, 2010 by  

We were in Bath last weekend for the wedding of my niece Sharon to Chris. Had time to do some touring in the city and surrounding Somerset, including visiting the Roman Baths, Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral (across the road from which is the late Ted Heath’s house), and Longleat, where we saw cute little meercats. But in Bath (where Jane Austen lived for six  years) I visited some great bookshops: George Bayntun’s in Manvers Street where I bought Knut Hamsun’s ‘Wayfarers’; Bath Old Books in Circus Mews; and at the highly recommended Skoobs in Guildhall Market I got Hesse’s ‘Rosshalde’ and ‘Klingsor’s Last Summer’, ‘Memed, My Hawk’ by Yashar Kemal and ‘Falconer’ by John Cheever.

Wednesday 6th October. Finished ‘Fathers And Sons’ by Ivan Turgenev. The opening chapter, when a father anxiously awaits the arrival of his son is excellent, but I did not find the rest of the novel as compelling. Ironically, I first read it in 1982 when I was living with my father during that year. I prefer Turgenev’s novella, ‘Spring Torrents’, which I read in 1993. I am not sure when this old hardback copy of ‘Fathers And Sons’ was published but I presume it was late nineteenth century. It was translated by Eugene Schuyler, a US diplomat who spent many years in Russia and was a friend of Tolstoy. It says that the book was translated with the approval of the author: Turgenev died in 1883 and Schuyler in 1890  but there is no publication date. A former owner or reader of the book has written angrily in pencil underneath Schuyler’s name, “Does not know English” and on the opening page, “Shocking Bad Translation!”

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Paris Review Vol. IV

October 11, 2010 by  

Finished ‘The Paris Review Interviews Vol. IV’. Have to say that throughout the entire series I found the interviews with novelists and short story writers much more compelling than those with poets but I suppose that is understandable. Nor was I impressed by the late Jack Kerouac who comes across as a right pain in the ass. But a very revealing and important, almost confessional, statement is made by the Israeli writer David Grossman. And as soon as I read it, I knew what he meant about one’s writing process: “If I know the end, the book will not surprise me, and more than that, it won’t betray me. This is important: the book should betray me, in the sense that it should take me to places I am afraid to go.”

William Styron quotes: The business of the progression of time seems to me one of the most difficult problems a novelist has to cope with.

On character or story: I still believe in the value of a handsome style. I appreciate the sensibility that can produce a nice turn of phrase, like Scott Fitzgerald. But I’m not interested any more in turning out something shimmering and impressionistic – Southern, if you will – full of word-pictures, damn Dixie baby talk, and that sort of thing. I guess I just get more and more interested in people. And story.

Writers who are gay he calls, ‘the fairy axis’!

On what should be the purpose of a young writer – should he be engaged, “not concerned as much with the story aspects of the novel as with the problems of the contemporary world?” It seems to me that only a great satirist can tackle the world’s problems and articulate them. Most writers write simply out of some strong interior need, and that, I think, is the answer. A great writer, writing out of this need, will give substance to, and perhaps even explain, all the problems of the world without even knowing it, until a scholar comes along one hundred years after he’s dead and digs up some symbols. The purpose of a young writer is to write, and he shouldn’t drink too much. He shouldn’t think that after he’s written one book he’s God Almighty and air all his immature opinions in pompous interviews. Let’s have another cognac and to up to Le Chapelain. (From Issue 8, 1955)

Jack Kerouac quotes: I’m pro-American and the radical political involvements seem to tend elsewhere… The country gave my Canadian family a good break, more or less, and we see no reason to demean said country. (From Issue 43, 1968)

E.B White interviewed is asked about the writer’s commitment to politics and answers: A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter. I feel no obligations to deal with politics. I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print – a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, the inform and shape life. (From Issue 48, 1969)

John Ashbery [poet] on whether one can write without mood: It’s important to try to write when you are in the wrong mood or when the weather is wrong. Even if you don’t succeed you’ll be developing a muscle that may do it late on. And I think writing does get easier as you get older. It’s a question of practice and also of realizing that you don’t have the oceans of time to waste that you had when you were young. (From Issue 90, 1983)

Philip Roth: on whether novels change anything: Writing novels is not the road to power. I don’t believe that, in my society, novels effect serious changes in anyone other than the handful of people who are writers, whose own novels are of course seriously affected by other novelists’ novels. I can’t see anything like that  happening to the ordinary reader, nor would I expect it…

Novels provide readers with something to read. At their best writers change the way readers read. That seems to me the only realistic expectation…

You asked me if I thought my fiction had changed anything in the culture and the answer is no. Sure, there’s been some scandal, but people are scandalized all the time; it’s a way of life for them. It doesn’t mean a thing. If you ask me if I want my fiction to change anything in the culture, the answer is still no…. (From Issue 93, 1984)

Stephen Sondheim on the importance of creating character in songs: Arthur Pinero said about playwriting: Tell them what you’re going to do, then do it, then tell them you’ve done it. (From Issue 142, 1997)

Which comes first – the music or the lyrics: When Richard Rodgers was asked, Which comes first, the music or the lyrics? he usually replied, The check. Since you’re both the composer and lyricist, what do you start with?

V.S. Naipaul – strikes me as a repulsive person and ill-mannered interviewee.

Paul Auster: on ‘jumping around in the story’ – Every book begins with the first sentence and then I push on until I’ve reached the last. Always in sequence, a paragraph at a time. I have a sense of the trajectory of the story – and often have the last sentence as well as the first before I begin – but everything keeps changing as I go along. No book I’ve published has ever turned out as I thought it would. (From Issue 167, 2003)

Orhan Pamuk: on misleading one’s sources – The local anchorman [in Kars] put me on TV and said, Our famous author is writing an article for the national newspaper – that was a very important thing. Municipal elections were coming up so the people of Kars opened their doors to me. They all wanted to say something to the national newspaper, to let the government know how poor they were. They did not know I was going to put them in a novel. They thought I was going to put them in an article. I must confess, this was cynical and cruel of me. Though I was actually thinking of writing an article about it too.

Reaction to the book – In Turkey, both conservatives – or political Islamists – and secularists were upset… The reaction of the people of Kars was also divided. Some said, Yes, that is how it is. Others, usually Turkish nationalists, were nervous about my mentions of Armenians.

For whom are you writing – I believe less and less in eternity for authors. We are reading very few of the books written two hundred years ago. Things are changing so fast that today’s books will probably be forgotten in a hundred years. Very few will be read. In two hundred years, perhaps five books written today will be alive. Am I sure I’m writing one of those five? But is that the meaning of writing? Why should I be worrying about being read two hundred years later? Shouldn’t I be worried about living more? Do I need the consolation that I will be read in the future? I think of all these things and I continue to write. I don’t know why. But I never give up. This belief that your books will have an effect in the future is the only consolation you have to get pleasure in this life.

On originality – The formula for originality is very simple – put together two things that were not together before.

On his detachment as a writer – Although I was raised in a crowded family and taught to cherish the community, I later acquired an impulse to break away. There is a self-destructive side to me, and in bouts of fury and moments of anger I do things that cut me off from the pleasant company of the community. Early in life I realized that the community kills my imagination. I need the pain of loneliness to make my imagination work. And then I’m happy. But being a Turk, after a while I need the consoling tenderness of the community, which I may have destroyed. Istanbul destroyed my relationship with my mother – we don’t see each other anymore. And of course I hardly ever see my brother. My relationship with the Turkish public, because of my recent comments, is also difficult… Literature is made of good and bad, demons and angels, and more and more they [the public?] are only worried about my demons. (From Issue 175, 2005)

David Grossman: In answer to: do you always begin with a character – Miracles can happen in the writing process. More often than in life, unfortunately. Sometimes I start a novel and I think it’s the beginning, but it’s the middle of the book. One thing is clear – I never write the conclusion of a book until I am very close to the end.

Why? – If I know the end, the book will not surprise me, and more than that, it won’t betray me. This is important: the book should betray me, in the sense that it should take me to places I am afraid to go.

Do you have any strategies you employ when you get stuck?-  Sometimes I write a letter to my protagonist, as if he were a real human being. I ask, What’s the difficulty? Why can’t you make it? What is preventing me from understanding you?

You have said, “When writing fiction, it is of the utmost importance to be meticulous with facts.” To what extent do you conduct research for your novels? – If I am going to write about a man joining a shoal of salmon, as in ‘See Under: Love”, I have to start my making the reality of the salmon very concrete and credible. So I joined divers, I became a salmon… When I wrote ‘The Zigzag Kid’, I joined a detective squad of the Jerusalem police for six months, spending almost every night with them… In my new novel, I’m writing about a five-hundred-kilometer journey through Israel. People walk in a zigzagging path from the very north of the country to Jerusalem. So I went to the very north, to Galilee, and walked down here to my home. It took forty-five days.

Authors to follow up: Bruno Schulz, Clarice Lispector. (From Issue 182, 2007)

Marilynne Robinson on death: When I do think about death, the idea that life will be going on without me makes me melancholy. There’s so much to miss: history and architecture! But it won’t miss me.

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Made In Dagenham

October 5, 2010 by  

On Sunday we went to see an excellent film, ‘Made In Dagenham’ about the Ford factory women’s strike in 1968. The dramatization was very evocative of the period, was funny and at times very moving: a little gem. The strike was initially called by the women sewing machinists in protest at being reclassified as ‘unskilled’ but mushroomed into a courageous fight for equal pay and led two years later to the introduction in Britain of the Equal Pay Act. The star of the show was easily Sally Hawkins as happily married, mother-of-two Rita O’Grady who is suddenly thrust into the leadership, is quickly politicised and soon learns to her personal cost the price of sticking to one’s principles. Miranda Richardson is perfect as the supportive minister, Barbara Castle.

Today, Tuesday 5th October, was interviewed by Nick Mack who is doing research on behalf of the Community Arts Forum to explore the contribution community arts makes to community development.

28th September. Finished G.K. Chesterton’s ‘Autobiography’.

27th September. My feature published in today’s Andersonstown News. It is about the Chilean miners who are still trapped below ground. I called the piece, ‘Esperanza, Spanish for “Hope”’, though the paper gave it a different title.

Tonight, went to see Tim Robbins and his band The Rogues Gallery in the Limelight. Had a great time and met up with Tim briefly afterwards.

26th September. Went to the Waterfront as the guest of Mr Gibney to see ‘Low Pay? Won’t Pay!’ based on a Dario Fo play and starring the excellent Chris Patrick Simpson.

25th September. We went to see the American film ‘Winter’s Bone’ in the QFT. It is set in scary, hillbilly country and is about the struggle of a 17-year-old girl, the daughter of a drug dealer, to keep her family together and save the family home. Bit gruesome at times – especially hat part which involves a chainsaw!

21st September. Finished ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’ by Stieg Larrson.


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G. K. Chesterton

October 4, 2010 by  

Finished G.K. Chesterton’s ‘Autobiography’. Mostly boring but with some notable things, some of which were quite funny. I always remember my friend Terry Devlin quoting Chesterton’s hyperbolic saying about the Irish:

For the great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry,
And all their songs are sad.

Chesterton writes: “I have always felt it the first duty of a real English patriot to sympathise with the passionate patriotism of Ireland.” According to Wikepedia, Chesterton’s novel ‘The Man Who Was Thursday’ inspired Michael Collins with the idea “if you didn’t seem to be hiding nobody hunted you out.”

Anyway, my edition of the book (first published in 1936) was published by Arrow Books in 1959 which explains why it is falling apart but doesn’t explain the extraordinary number of typos throughout as if it had not been proofed. Given its poor conditon, I shall not be able to make it available on Green Metropolis.

I would love to know how a photograph of an oil painting of him, aged six, looking like a little girl got past him – or had he died before the book was published (he died in 1936)? Anyway! Quotes:

“A solemn friend of my grandfather used to go for walks on Sunday carrying a prayer-book, without the least intention of going to church. And he calmly defended it by saying, with uplifted hand: ‘I do it, Chessie, as an example to others.’ The man who did that was obviously a Dickens character.”

In the chapter, ‘How To Be A Dunce’, he writes: “I learnt during the period of what is commonly called education; that is, the period during which I was being instructed by somebody I did not know, about something I did not want to know.” In, ‘How To Be A Lunatic’, he parades his Catholicism (to which he converted from Anglicanism):

“I am very proud of my religion; I am especially proud of those parts of it that are most commonly called superstition. I am proud of being fettered by antiquated dogmas and enslaved by dead creeds (as my journalistic friends repeat with so much pertinacity), for I know very well that it is the heretical creeds that are dead, and that it is only the reasonable dogma that lives long enough to be called antiquated. I am very proud of what people call priestcraft; since even that accidental term of abuse preserves the medieval truth that a priest like every other man, ought to be called a craftsman. I am very proud of what people call Mariolatry; because it introduced into religion in the darkest ages that element of chivalry which is now being belatedly and badly understood in the form of feminism. I am very proud of being orthodox about the mysteries of the Trinity or the Mass; I am proud of believing in the Confessional; I am proud of believing in the Papacy.”

Some of Chesterton’s supporters are campaigning for him to be beatified!

He recalls some of the things he wrote when young, among them, a piece about “the scoffer as begging God to give him eyes and lips and a tongue that he might mock the giver of them; a more angry version of the same fancy. And I think it was about this time that I thought of the notion afterwards introduced into a tale called, ‘Manalive’, of a benevolent being who went about with a pistol, which he would suddenly point at a pessimist, when that philosopher said that life was not worth living.”